A Cook's Garden

A Cook's Garden: Heirloom Tomatoes, Lumpy and Lovely

Unusual shape and coloration in a tomato is often a sign that it is a superior-tasting heirloom.
Unusual shape and coloration in a tomato is often a sign that it is a superior-tasting heirloom. (By Eric Risberg -- Associated Press)
By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 16, 2009

"Here, take this tomato," offered Josh as he was stocking our farm stand. "Nobody's going to buy it." It was big, ripe and ready to eat but bulbous and blotched with yellow.

Granted, our customers by now are used to lumpy tomatoes that taste sublime. A quaint form is usually a sign that the fruit is an heirloom, with superior taste. This particular tomato was a very large, old, bicolored variety called Striped German, in which red flares radiate from the blossom end against a yellow background, with the interior similarly streaked. It looked perfect, just right. "Okay, this one is mine," I thought, heading back to the kitchen with my prize.

Slicing an heirloom tomato can be as intricate as boning a chicken. You remove not only the stem end, but often a few black, scablike patches and lines on the bottom and an occasional small green protuberance. This one had a ribbed top and a convoluted base. While dissecting it I discovered almost no juicy cavities. Its flesh was as smooth and firm as a paste tomato, its flavor rich and low in acid, a common trait with yellow-fleshed tomatoes. What I scattered across my salad looked exactly like chunks cut from a gorgeous ripe peach.

There are more than 100 orange and red bicolored tomato varieties, according to expert Carolyn Male, and it can be hard to keep them all straight. I've seen this one conflated with Old German (similar but not the same, according to Male) and Striped Cavern, a stuffing tomato with empty spaces inside -- clearly a different creature altogether. Confusion is natural as gardeners save, collect and swap seeds. Individual strains also emerge, adapted to the growers' different soils and climates, often improved by the process of selection as seeds are saved from the best fruits on the strongest plants.

One of the many positive outcomes of the growing popularity of heirloom varieties is that seed companies find it profitable to carry them and put effort into identifying and stabilizing certain old varieties. My Striped German tomato came from a packet bought from Johnny's Selected Seeds (http://www.johnnyseeds.com), which 20 years or so ago plucked it out of the "amateur underground," as the company's founder Rob Johnston calls it, and introduced it into commercial trade. Johnston says that he tries out many heirlooms and looks for those that taste great, will perform well and are widely adapted to different growing conditions. "We also liked the wild color pattern of this one," he says.

Heirlooms, let's face it, are tricky, iffy, funky. If the weather is going to go against you, heirloom tomatoes are among the first to feel the effects. But for a salad as stunning as that one, they are worthwhile.

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