I distinctly recall the very first time I tasted an heirloom tomato. It happened a couple summers ago on Frog Holler organic farm outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where occasionally volunteering to help snip salad greens and thin carrots sometimes earned me a free meal. One warm July day, lunch featured a reddish gold, pumpkin-fat heirloom behemoth, fresh from the tomato field. I was taken aback by its incredible shape and color. Though I don’t know the variety of heirloom we ate that day, I remember its perfect balance of tart and sweet flavor, rich juiciness and tender flesh. All the other tomatoes I’d eaten in my life suddenly didn’t compare. I was hooked—but I had no idea why these mysterious heirlooms were so good.
The farmer explained that they were open-pollinated, that is, pollinated by natural means (wind, insects, etc.) and allowed to develop without genetic engineering or controlled modifications. As a result, the daughters of an open pollinated plant are always slightly genetically different from the parent and, naturally, promoting biodiversity. Despite genetic evolution, his hefty fruit had more in common with the tomatoes eaten a hundred years ago than the supermarket kind I’d been eating all my life.
However, heirloom tomatoes do have traits that make them challenging to grow, especially for commercial farmers. For instance, they often take longer to ripen, are more susceptible to blight and disease, are difficult to stake and keep organized in the field, and, once ripe, don’t last very long. Nonetheless, maintaining the correct conditions (and growing heirlooms that are suited to the local climate) makes all the difference for these sensitive fruits, which make up for any difficulties in their exceptional quality and contribution to biodiversity.
Genetically modified tomatoes, the ones found in standard produce sections across America, have been bred to avoid these undesirable traits: they are often smaller than the irregular, bulbous heirlooms, and rarely have any of the beautiful heirloom variation in color. The standard coloring and sizing make them easily recognizable for the supermarket shopper, simplifying their sale. Genetically modified tomatoes are also bred for durability, with thicker skin and harder, drier flesh for easy transportation, avoiding crushing or bruising. Convenient though they may be, these tomatoes are nearly unrecognizable shadows of their ancient ancestors when it comes to taste and texture.
There are some heirloom varieties that have been preserved for many years by preventing cross-pollinating with other varieties. These are the tried and true tastiest, ones that people know and love, and continue growing year after year. I decided to give some of these famous varieties a try, and visited the Green City Market last week to stock up on as many as I could. Thanks to Nichols, Kinnikinnick and Green Acres farms, I conducted a taste test, to see if the differences between heirloom varieties were noticeable to an untrained palate. The results were pretty incredible—each fruit definitely had a specific consistency and flavor. Here they are, for your information and complete with gorgeous photographs by Julia V. Hendrickson!
Cherokee Purple: This dark fatty was tender and juicy, with a subtly sweet, earthy flavor. It’s evidently one of the strongest heirlooms as far as susceptibility to blight and disease. The origins of this variety are indicated by its name—it is said to have been grown and preserved by the Cherokee nation hundreds of years ago. The color is an incredible dusky purple and has that classic heirloom shape. 8-9 in. diameter.
Amish Paste: A weirdly named variety, this bright red fruit was curiously elongated. It was not the best one eaten fresh (which was how I sampled it) but a fellow tomato enthusiast at the GCM said they are great for canning and making sauces. I could definitely see that—the consistency was a little harder than some of the other tomatoes we tried, but the flavor was bright and delicious. 5 in. in length, 3 in. wide.
Green Zebra: True to its name, this tomato is bright green with fair yellow stripes when ripe. It is very juicy, though not as tender as the larger heirlooms we tasted. It has a really bright, lemony flavor (one tester compared it to the taste of kiwi). This is the variety currently being used by chef Mark Mendez in his BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato) sandwich at Carnivale! 3 in. diameter.
Brandywine Pink: This was probably the most beautiful of all the tomatoes in the taste test. It was a fair pink with green tinges on the “shoulders.” Unfortunately, this one wasn’t quite ripe, and didn’t have the flavor I’d hoped for. After reading up on it, I learned that the Brandywines in general are some of the most beloved heirlooms, and the pink seems to be especially popular. It’s said to be one of the oldest Brandywine varieties with a complex, rich and sweet flavor. Make sure it’s pretty soft before you taste it, to be sure that it’s ripe! 7-8 in. diameter.
Nyagous: This was another strangely dark tomato, about the same size and spherical shape of the Green Zebra, but similar in color to the Cherokee Purple. It had a similar flavor to the Purple, but a not as sweet and rich. Apparently, this variety was introduced from Russia several decades ago. There were two Nyagous varieties that we sampled here: the Russian Black and a mysterious, unnamed second one with reddish skin and green striations on the sides. They tasted identical. 3 in. diameter.
Black Cherry: These little cherries were unbelievably delicious. They had an earthy, rich flavor that tended to be sour, rather than sweet. About the size of an average cherry tomato, they would be incredibly good in any salad. 1 in. diameter.
Red Pear: These were the most precious tomatoes I’d ever seen. They looked like little gnomes, perfectly pear-shaped and leaning against each other for the pictures we took. They were sweet and juicy and brightly reddish orange. 1 in. length, .5 in width.
Striped German: This tomato was by far my favorite out of the bunch. It was another thick, juicy monster, with tender flesh and beautiful orange to red color. What shocked me about this tomato, grown by Green Acres farms and affectionately referred to by the sales people as “Mr. Stripey,” was its sweetness. At times, this was more like eating a ripe peach than a tomato. I ended up dismissing the salt, pepper and olive oil with which we’d been sampling the others, and eating it plain. It was delicious. 8-9 in. diameter.
If you don’t get the chance to hit up your local farmer’s market to taste test these guys on your own, attend and participate in the Second Annual TomatoFest Potluck Supper on September 10th at the Honey Coop! Click here for details on this lovely, family-friendly event!
The Amish Paste
The Brandywine Pink
The Green Zebra and Black Cherries
The Nyagous variety, with some light mozzarella and homegrown basil.
A beautiful assortment (clockwise from bottom left): Brandywine Pink, Cherokee Purple, Striped German, Black Cherries, Big Beef, Green Zebra, Nyagous, and the little Red Pears!