It is not easy to find a really tomato-y tasting tomato these days. For decades, commercial varieties have been hybridized for productivity, disease resistance, consistent size and color, sturdiness — virtually everything but flavor, and usually at the expense of it. “Love apple” lovers know that the closest they can come to old-fashioned tomato taste is to buy — or grow — an heirloom variety.
An heirloom tomato is an open-pollinated variety, generally introduced before 1940, that has been preserved because of its taste and other valued characteristics. Heirloom tomatoes come in all sizes, from cherry and currant to big beefsteak. Colors range from white and green to yellow, orange, pink, red, purple, brown and black. They are generally thin-skinned, extremely flavorful and have a natural resistance to disease.
Sources cite as many as 600 to 700 different kinds, which is difficult to document, but there is no doubt that 170 varieties were available for tasting at the 14th annual Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival (see below). The taste-and-texture spectrum is wild and wonderful, with vast variation in sweetness, acidity, juiciness, aroma and solidity.
The best news is that heirloom tomato varieties are consistently available locally at both Whole Foods and Fresh Market. The sources vary with the season. Right now, Whole Foods has organic heirlooms from California. A few weeks ago, they were organic from Pennsylvania. When the season here starts, they will be conventional, grown by the store’s Florida grower, Farmhouse Tomatoes, in Delray. Fresh Market’s stock, also available year-round, is conventionally grown. Morton’s Gourmet Market occasionally stocks them and can special order them.
Heirloom tomatoes are not inexpensive at around $5 per pound.
“As with any product, it’s a matter of quality, supply and demand,” said Mark Klueber, associate facility team leader for the Whole Foods Market Florida Distribution Center. “As more farms continue to add heirloom tomatoes to their fields, the price drops. Also, heirlooms haven’t been hybridized for maximum yield, like conventional slicer tomatoes, so they cost more per acre to produce. Additionally, they are much more delicate to handle because they have not been crossbred for shelf life or handling. They typically have thinner skins and are softer to the touch when ripe. This means less fruit passes inspection prior to packing.” The heirloom varieties you are most likely to see at Whole Foods are purple Cherokee, golden jubilee, marvel stripe, brandywine and green zebra.
Because heirlooms are more delicate than regular tomatoes, treat them with extra care. Never stack them and don’t refrigerate them. Store them on the counter, preferably on a ventilated surface, such as a basket.
You can use an heirloom tomato any way you use regular tomatoes. They transform a caprese salad from routine to exciting. Klueber’s personal favorite is a simple tomato sandwich: two slices of multigrain bread, a little mayo, a big slice of heirloom tomato, a touch of salt and pepper and a slice of cheese. It couldn’t be simpler or more evocative of an old-fashioned summer.
A huge tomato-tasting tent where visitors consumed about 5,000 pounds of 170 different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. A tomato growing contest. More than two-dozen food purveyors offering food samples from Rockefeller oysters to fried green tomatoes. A three-round chef challenge. Seminars on subjects from wine and chocolate pairings to growing tomatoes. Self-guided tours of an amazing garden. All of that and more took place at the 14th annual Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival, held Sept. 11, at the KJ Wine Center in Fulton, Calif. The sell-out event benefits the School Garden Network. There will be a 15th annual event the weekend after Labor Day 2011.
Caprese Salad with Fresh Mozzarella and Heirloom Tomatoes
3 to 4 ripe heirloom tomatoes (about one pound) cored and sliced
4 ounces fresh mozzarella sliced, or fresh mozzarella ciliegine or bocconcini nuggets, drained and halved
1 lemon, halved
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup small basil leaves
Arrange tomatoes on four plates or a large platter, then scatter mozzarella over the top. Squeeze lemon juice over the tomatoes, then drizzle with oil. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with basil. Serve immediately. Serves four.