August is Heirloom Tomato Time

Tomatoes are complicated. The confusion sets in with the question, “are they fruit or vegetable?” They are legally defined as fruit in the agriculture industry but that doesn’t jive with the multitude of ways I use them. Then there is greenhouse versus field production, gas green verses vine ripened, north verses south, local verses long haul, and on and on…. For me, the only thing that’s simple about tomatoes is when they’re at their best – in my part of the world that’s August; and the shining jewels in my August tomato crown are heirlooms.

My own attempts at growing full-sized tomatoes of any kind are pretty pathetic. I can get great plant growth and I always have fun building elaboate plant supports out of bamboo, but getting good fruit (vegetables?) from my labor is a challenge. Field tomatoes, particularly large heirloom varieties like Brandywine and Marvel Stripe, need long periods of hot weather to grow and mature and it just doesn’t get hot enough where I live in California. The fruit that come off my vines tend to be small with poor texture. Tomatoes can also react badly to big swings between daytime and nightime temperatures; hot days and warm nights are ideal. But tomatoes have a remarkably resiliant and diverse variety base so I am certain that someday I will find a tomato variety sutiable to my climate.

Since I can’t grow heirlooms, I have to buy them and where I live there are plenty to choose from, starting in the late spring with greenhouse production, later under hoops (plastic sheets that hold in the heat), followed by field production during mid- to late summer. Heirloom varieties all have slightly different characteristics but there are some simple selection tips you can follow. Heirlooms should be somewhat firm to the touch. This is more important with the larger varieties but if you buy a soft heirloom of any size, chances are it’s overripe. You should avoid tomatoes with open splits and cracks. A tomato with a large surface area where the stem was attached will likely have a hard area inside that is unusable. You should also buy only what you intend to use over a few days. Most heirloom varieties ripen quickly and do not keep as long as regular tomatoes.

Here in California there are several excellent large and small heirloom growers. In the north there are the Barnes brothers growing heirlooms in the Capay Valley and Jim and Deborah Durst near Esparto, California. 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 of these folks (and the dozens of smaller growers that provide product directly to our stores) share a common passion for great tomatoes, as well as patience for the quirks that come with producing heirloom varieties. The popularity of commercial production heirlooms out west and the difficultly involved in shipping these tomatoes long distance has led to an increase in east coast production as well, most notably Hepworth Farms of Milton, New York, where Amy and Gail Hepworth and Gerry Greco farm dozens of varieties in the rich soil of the Hudson River Valley.

Timing for field production in tomatoes matches up well with an overall decline in salad leaf production due to higher temperatures, so I generally shift to tomatoes as a base for my summer salads replacing lettuce. My perennial favorite is a mixed heirloom salad with some crumbled blue or Gorgonzola cheese, roasted pecans, and some basil (topped with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar) but my salads will evolve over the summer. Another favorite is 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).

My relationship with tomatoes is complicated too. It changes with the seasons and there are times when I won’t go near them. But August is heirloom time and every year I look forward to the mild acidity and sweet flavor of the Cherokee Purple, the beautiful yellow and red blush of the Marvel Stripe, and the wonderful texture and rich flavor of my personal favorite — the Brandywine. I’m always looking for new recipes or varieties to try, so share your favorites in the comments below — this is one vegetable (fruit!) I can’t get enough of in August.

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