Tomatoes With a Past

In this episode, Dino Kraniotis shares the secret of his killer tomatoes, killer Greek Stuffed Tomato that is, and we travel to upstate New York to see the garden of heirloom tomato specialist Amy Goldman.
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 21, 2008

RHINEBECK, N.Y. -- Amy Goldman's one-acre vegetable garden is a sun-bathed laboratory of sorts, a sloping plot where one of America's most celebrated gardeners and champions of biodiversity allows a fruit or vegetable to express its genes fully.

She has written books on obscure and historic varieties of squash and melons, but now, she feels, those were just "warm-ups" for the big one. "I love tomatoes; who doesn't?" she says. "I can relate to them. They have personality, they have history, they have flair. They have everything."

They also have Victor Schrager, a still-life photographer who has spent the past five summers at Goldman's farm producing studio portraits of these revered berries. The result is "The Heirloom Tomato" (Bloomsbury, $35), a book that not only celebrates what it calls "the world's most beautiful fruit" but also acts as a manual for home gardeners. Here, we find varieties of tomatoes we could not have imagined, much less bought in a supermarket or even a farmers market, along with places to get the seed for next year's home harvest.

The book offers an image of a brace of ribbed, red-orange tomatoes on a platter, like squat pumpkins. Ugly, they're named -- or misnamed. In the pictures of beefsteaks, Schrager shows six varieties, one on top of another, as if they were circus performers, strongmen forming a pyramid. It might have been fun to weigh the stack, which probably would have come close to 15 pounds.

Goldman has done the research and the growing, but the images deliver a transcending idea. They are artfully composed, professionally staged, softly lit and narrowly focused. The tomato, that Everyman's fruit of high summer, suddenly becomes an almost forbidden object of mouthwatering beauty and desire. To avoid pangs, eat before viewing the images or reading the text. Perhaps Flamme, a smallish, round French tomato variety with firm, tangerine-colored flesh that, Goldman writes, is a "perfect blend of sweet and tart." Or the dark cherry tomato, Black Cherry, which is "fruity and well balanced." Or Japanese Oxheart, a two-pounder that is "winey, sweet, nice fruit acid."

The point, of course, is that there is no one heirloom tomato, but thousands of varieties. The public perception, Goldman notes, is that the lone antidote to the bland, rock-hard, thick-skinned, ethylene-ripened supermarket tomato is the Brandywine. But that heirloom alone has half a dozen or more variants.

The grass-roots conservation organization named Seed Savers Exchange, of which Goldman is chairman, has 5,979 varieties preserved in its seed bank in Decorah, Iowa. She sourced many of hers from this vault but received other seeds from the international network of gardeners, conservationists, farmers and scientists that she has developed over the years. "They shared their knowledge, their seeds, their recipes. They enriched my life, my garden and this book," she said.

When the book project was in full swing, she grew 1,000 plants in her garden each summer, representing 500 varieties. Over the five years she tested and retested as many as 1,000 varieties, all started from seed in April in her greenhouse.

This summer, she has scaled back, if you can call it that, to just two each of 250 varieties. About half the hillside garden is given to tomatoes, the rest to squash and sweet corn. The first impression is that the tomato vines are vigorous and largely free of the leaf blight diseases that are so prevalent these days. Goldman has been growing tomatoes since she was a teenager, and you sense that she has perfected the art.

Once the vigorous seedlings are ready to plant, she installs them through a black, porous landscape cloth that is laid out in strips from long rolls. The cloth is covered in a generous mulch of straw. Each plant is grown through a cage and is further supported by a wooden stake on each side. She gives a lot of room to each vine, five feet from its neighbor in rows seven feet wide. In July, as they grow bushy, she snips off the lower leaves. This is a time-consuming chore, but the pruning cuts down on blights, which form first on the lower leaves. The generous spacing also gives the plants the sunlight and breezy conditions needed for healthy growth.

Even with such accommodation, some varieties refuse to stay put. There is Alberto Shatters, a sprawling currant type named for the way its tiny, pealike berries drop when ripe. Goldman calls it "the smallest tomato I've ever seen" and with good, acidic flavor.

She stops to point out the Pink Peach tomato, with soft skin covered in hairs. (There's also a yellow version, called Yellow Peach.) It is too soft and juicy to be found anywhere but in one's own garden. Then there's Thai Pink, a light gray-rose hue when ripening but destined to become the hot pink of nail polish.

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