It might be hard to tell since they are around all year, but tomatoes actually have a season when they are at their best. Since they are warm weather plants, you may think that summer in general is the time when they are the most abundant and flavorful. The fact is, though, that field tomatoes need prolonged periods of warm weather to grow and mature so it is generally later in the summer when we see — and taste — the best.
Of course my gardening friends in the southern states are way ahead of the farms in New England and my home here in the west. In fact, many of the commercial winter farms of South Florida have finished and production has already started to move further north. My farmer friends here in California report good plant growth but unseasonably cool daytime temperatures. So, while full-sized slicers and heirloom tomatoes are still several weeks away in large volumes, their smaller cousins, cherry tomatoes, are coming off the vine now.
Cherry tomatoes are grown in greenhouses as well, but the majority of commercial production is open field. Cherry tomatoes are very labor intensive at harvest time but a single plant puts out incredible volumes of fruit over 8 to 10 weeks of production in most areas. Cherry tomato plants are also faster producers than larger varieties so growers have a shorter period to maintain the plants before they start generating income.
The most common variety produced today is the grape tomato — an oblong, red variety that is firm and very sweet. Grape tomatoes are produced all over the U.S. so chances are if you live in a state that is already warm, you will see some local production. Usually by late June we see the start of the domestic varietal cherry tomato season and, for a few short weeks, the grape tomato will be joined by an explosion of size, shape and color with varieties like the Sun Gold, Red and Yellow Pear, Sno White and Black Cherry.
This expanded availability is usually the signal for me to change from spring to summer salads. As cherry tomatoes become more abundant and reasonably priced, they gradually replace the less flavorful lettuces of summer. Cucumbers also see an increase in availability so my salad of choice consists of sliced cucumbers and cherry tomatoes with basil, some crumbled blue cheese and a little olive oil and vinegar. I also have a simple cold pasta dish — angel hair with sliced cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and basil — that is a light, summertime favorite.
Cherry tomatoes also make a great snack all by themselves. For the last several weeks we’ve had a bowl of them on our break room table here at the office that never stays full for long. In a few weeks we will all start obsessing about full-sized heirlooms (for good reason) but it’s the cherry tomato that always starts the season.