My wife Erin thinks I'm a kook about most things that have to do with produce. For the most part she has given up trying to keep up with the complicated, ever changing, and sometimes contradictory set of personal rules I use to govern which fruits and vegetables I buy and when I buy them. She, quite wisely, now insists I shop for all the produce for our family. She has also learned to politely tune out my elaborate and overly detailed reasons for not buying corn in January, mangoes that have been chilled, or any piece of fruit with the word "delicious" in its name. My one "food snob" conversion success with Erin is tomatoes - all it took was about five years and a few summertime heirloom tomato salads to win her over.
In earlier years, my job was to seek out the best growers and buy lots of different produce for our stores. These days, my job has changed some and about the only professional buying I do is for California organic heirloom tomatoes - and I look forward to the season every year.
My buying focus is on the full-sized tomatoes but the midsummer brings an explosion in old style Cherry and Roma tomatoes as well. Cherry tomato varieties, available in limited quantities off season, are suddenly everywhere with high sugar varieties like Sun Gold and Sweet 100, along with a bevy of exotic varieties (like black cherry, snow white and yellow grape). In August the heirloom variety San Marzano Roma becomes available for a short period, replacing the more modern cooking tomato varieties.
Mixed heirlooms - Buellton, CA
The fun for me comes in the form of the large and small heirloom slicer tomato varieties, along with the growers and shippers that provide them. In the North Country, it's the Barnes brothers in Capay Canyon and Jim and Deborah Durst in Esparto. The Central Valley has Ginger Balakian, Brad Johnson and Hans Wilgenburg. Further south, Chris Caldwell works his central coast fields near Buellton and Bill Brammer farms near San Diego. All these folks (and the dozens of smaller growers who provide tomatoes directly to our stores) share a common passion for tomatoes, as well as patience for the quirks that come with producing heirloom varieties.
Heirloom production forecasting is, at the best of times, unreliable and can be downright puzzling. Last year, for example, we saw robust plant growth but only moderate fruit sets. Temperature extremes in both directions can shut the plant down - causing blossom drop, growth cracks in fruit, or preventing fruit from maturing fully. Heirloom seeds can also be a challenging. Growers have reported purchasing seeds for one variety, only to find another coming off of the plant. Packing and transportation can also be dicey, but fortunately there are many areas of the U.S. where a modest to significant crop of these wonderful varieties can be produced. Handling the fruit at grocery stores is equally hard since the size and inconsistency in ripeness from box to box can be too much to handle for many retailers (not us, of course!). It takes a lot of effort and focus to bring these tomatoes to market. As frustrating as the crop can be, when things go well it is absolute heaven. The beauty and flavor are a stunning example of nature's diversity.
Brad Johnson - Wooley Farms
My passions are split between selling these heirloom tomatoes and finding inventive ways to serve them! Timing for field production in tomatoes overlaps with a decline in leaf lettuces (due to higher temperatures), so I generally shift to tomatoes as a replacement for lettuce in my summer salads. My current favorite combination is a mixed heirloom salad with some crumbled blue or Gorgonzola cheese, roasted pecans and basil (topped with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar), but my summer salads will evolve over the summer. Another favorite's a Brandywine sandwich - a thick slice of tomato between my favorite bread of the moment (and some cucumber slices, cheese and whatever else happens to be in my fridge).
I have to admit I feel a sense of pride in knowing I have made a heirloom tomato convert out of Erin. It is also part of my "evil plan" to convert my kids (as soon as I can get them to even consider having a tomato on the same plate as the rest of their food). In the 15 years or so I have been seriously selling heirloom tomatoes, it has become far easier to supply this wonderful seasonal treat, so chances are you will find them in our stores all over the country. I am always looking for favorite recipes - if you have one, please share!
Experimental variety - Gold stripe