Heirloom tomatoes are a priceless inheritance
Some inherit land, others inherit money, and the fortunate few inherit valuable jewels. But everyone can claim ownership to priceless gems of another kind – gleaming red, yellow, pink, orange, green, white and even purple heirloom tomatoes that glisten in the fields of your local farmers!
The definition of an heirloom tomato, or any heirloom vegetable for that matter, is an open pollinated plant (non-hybrid) that has been passed down for at least 50 years or a plant that has been bred from heirlooms.
There are commercial varieties of heirlooms that have been sold through seed catalogs for decades, and there are local varieties that have been saved and shared among families and neighbors for generations. And don’t forget those accidents of cross breeding in the backyard garden that continue to create some of the most exciting varieties out there.
The importance of heirloom tomatoes
Botanists have long warned that the future of the human race relies on the delicate balance of plant genetics, and seed banks and repositories are being developed around the world to answer that very real concern. It is hoped that catastrophic crop failures in one part of the world could be offset by genetic material that has survived on the other side of the globe.
Heirloom tomatoes present the perfect example of the benefits from such biodiversity. When seeds are collected year after year from local varieties, the strongest genetic traits are preserved as these varieties start to adapt to local climate, develop resistance to local diseases and pests, and stake their claim in that part of the world.
These “customized” strains provide some insurance against crop failures, and might also offer genetic material for breeding varieties that could re-populate areas of the world that have suffered plant disasters.
Local farmers go about the business of insuring genetic diversity each time they plant and save the seeds of heirloom vegetables. And when these gems wind up on your table, you are helping to keep the system healthy by supporting local growers who believe in the importance of heirlooms, and are willing to grow them year after year.
Besides that, they taste phenomenal!
A tomato by any other name…
Surveying the booths of any farmers market worth its salt, you will usually gaze upon some very unique tomatoes in a wide array of colors and shapes. You might see the deeply hued Black Russian Krim and Cherokee Purple, or the diminutive creamy white Snowberry. A real crowd pleaser is the huge German Johnson, a 16-ounce pink and yellow tomato thought to have originated in North Carolina.
Because they were grown for eating and not shipping, heirlooms have never been known for their uniform shapes, and in fact some can be downright strange looking! In fact, farmers are used to saying, “Yep, it’s a tomato!” which serves as a good segue into sharing about the little old lady who saved the seeds 70 years as a tribute to her grandmother who brought them from Europe.
Heirlooms come not only with superior flavors, but good stories, too!
Take the Mortgage Lifter for instance. Developed in the early 1940s by an auto mechanic in Logan, West Virginia known as “Radiator Charlie” Byles, these gargantuan tomatoes can reach three pounds. Byles claimed to have used the German Johnson as one of the parent plants, and then cross-pollinated it with every large tomato variety he could find from old-timers in West Virginia. It took seven years of perfecting the experiment, before he was satisfied with what he later dubbed The Mortgage Lifter. After selling the plants for $1 each, a high price to pay for a tomato plant back in that day, Byles soon had the entire mortgage paid on his home.
Flavors to savor
Heirloom tomatoes are famous for flavors that will get your attention at first bite, and that’s why many folks prefer them to uniformly shaped fruit that is shipped in. Chefs often create seasonal recipes around them and select heirlooms that range from lemony to sugary sweet, keeping in mind what they will lend to the overall taste of the dish.
Next time you visit the farmers market look for these gems, but be careful how you handle them – getting them home without bruising is sometimes a challenge because of their delicate structure. Keep in mind they were bred for picking out of the backyard garden, and not for transport.
Also, storage is very important. All tomatoes, and heirlooms especially, need to be stored at room temperature, and not the refrigerator. You will find that heirlooms do not last as long as their shipped-in cousins, so plan to use them very soon.
An exciting place to enjoy heirloom tomatoes is at the table of a fine restaurant that has taken freshly delivered fruits and expertly prepared them the same day, making the most of the subtle flavor nuances found in each variety.
But no matter how you enjoy them, be sure to include heirloom tomatoes on your summer menu; and don’t forget to save some seeds just in case you want to grow them next year!
Jolley Farms grows an impressive selection of heirloom tomatoes, each one selected for it’s unique flavor and color. In fact, special requests from chefs are reflected in the crop from year to year.
Jolley Farms 2013 Crop of Heirloom Tomatoes include:
- White Tomesol
Known for its sweet and rich taste as well as its fragrance, this German heirloom is one of the most valued of the rare white tomatoes. Fruits average about ½ pound, and are smooth fleshed with a translucent creamy color that is sometimes tinged with a pink blush at the blossom end. Exquisitely delicious!
- Snowberry White Cherry
This is the closest you’ll come to a white cherry tomato! (Actual color is a creamy yellow- white.) Hailing from England, Snowberries were popular in conservatory gardens before hitting American soil. They are very sweet with a rich tomato flavor that belies their pale exterior. An excellent addition to gourmet salads when presentation is key.
First appearing in West Virginia back in the 1880s, this popular heirloom is streaked with orange, yellow, pink, and red! When cut, these 1½-pound tomatoes display a beautiful starburst pattern in very meaty flesh, making it popular for fresh eating in salads and on sandwiches. The super sweet flavor is an added bonus to the visual beauty of the Hillbilly.
- German Johnson
A lovely pink heirloom with roots in North Carolina and Virginia. The very large fruit, up to 1½ pounds, were the inspiration for the famous Mortgage Lifter, and German Johnson was said to be one of the parent plants of that variety. German Johnson bears meaty, flavorful fruit with very few seeds, making them good for canning, and slicing. They turn pink with yellow shoulders when ripe, and have a fairly smooth shape, making them one of the more attractive of the beefsteak tomatoes. Pink and yellow tomatoes are lower in acid, making these the perfect pick for those with dietary restrictions.
- Black Cherry
A truly “black” cherry tomato, and perfectly round, these little gems have the sweet, rich and complex flavor that black tomatoes are known for – a real surprise from such a little fruit. Actual color is deep red with blackish tones on translucent skin. A rare find that’s sure to bring flavor and conversation to a salad.
- Cherokee Purple
These beauties have a striking appearance complete with dark purple skin and deep red flesh, but are also extremely popular for their flavor and dense, juicy texture. Jeff McCormack, founder of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange traces this heirloom back to the Cherokee people of Western North Carolina by way of Craig LeHoullier of Pennsylvania who got the seeds from John Green of Tennessee who got the seeds from neighbors who got the seeds directly from the Cherokee 100 years earlier! Such is the nature of heirloom tomatoes; however, not all of them can lay claim to the fame this one has received through farmers markets and restaurants.
The name means “abundant bunch of grapes” and it certainly does describe how these deep red cherry tomatoes look when hanging on the vine. Known for extremely heavy yields, the Riesentraub cherry tomato was grown in America as early as 1856 by the Pennsylvania Dutch. Of course the Pennsylvania Dutch were actually German (Dutch coming from a corruption of the word Deutsch, meaning German) and the heirloom no doubt originated in their original homeland. Riesentraubs are often used for making tomato wine, another way to link the little fruit to its namesake, the grape.
- Sungold Orange Golden
These little glowing gems are often ready to eat weeks before other cherry tomato varieties, and can satisfy a fresh tomato craving when nothing else is ripe! However, at first bite you might think you just popped a tropical fruit into your mouth. They are one of the sweetest heirloom cherry tomatoes, and the intense orange glow of fully ripe Sungolds hanging on the vines hint of citrus groves in the Deep South. They are fun to use in salads with Lollipop Yellow cherry tomatoes for an unmistakably fruity taste.
- Orange Fleshed Purple Smudge
Most likely this unique tomato won’t win any prizes for the most appealing name, however it can certainly hold its own in the looks category. In fact garden writers have described it as “stunning,” “ornate,” “artistic,” and even “shocking!” Imagine a bright tangerine-orange globe with purple spatters on the upper half, and you’ll start to understand the unusual name. Take one bite of the 4-6 ounce fruit, and you’ll also figure out why their flavor makes them jump off the tables at farmers markets. Chefs like their sweet to acid balance making them a versatile ingredient, never over-powering, but just doing what a good tomato should do in the saucepot or fresh on the side. And did we mention how hey look? Truly, shocking!
- Tennessee Green
Grown by the Spear family of Tennessee since the early 1950s, Tennessee Green is an 8-10 ounce tomato with a slightly flattened top. The color can be described as emerald with a bit of amber highlight, but don’t let it fool you. When mature, this green tomato tastes every bit as ripe as its red cousins. The flavor is among one of the most interesting of all heirlooms, a hint of spice and citrus. A rare variety that is just now getting on the market thanks to the 50 years of seed preservation by a family who knew a good tomato when they tasted one, irregardless of the color.