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Heirloom Tomatoes: A Flavorful Blast From the Past

Local heirloom tomato season runs from mid-August through the first frost (usually sometime in late September). Though it’s a short window of time, there are few items in the Produce department as anticipated as the local heirloom tomatoes. But what exactly is meant by the term “heirloom,” and how on earth do you choose which one to buy?

What exactly is an heirloom vegetable?
Heirloom plants encompass a lot more than just tomatoes. There are heirloom varieties of every fruit, flower, and veggie you can imagine: from apples to zucchini.

The exact age that a plant variety must be in order to be considered an heirloom is a bit fuzzy. Some people define an heirloom as a plant cultivar that’s been around at least 100 years; some say 50 years. Some define it as a variety that existed before 1951, the first year that hybridized vegetable varieties became widely available in the U.S. Needless to say, we are talking about fruits and veggies that have been around a while.

Everyone agrees on the second half of the heirloom definition: an heirloom cultivar must be open-pollinated. This means that the plant is pollinated naturally (usually by wind or insects). Unlike more modern hybrid cultivars, the seeds of open-pollinated plants can be saved and planted in future years and will produce seedlings that have the same traits as their parents. If you save the seeds of a hybrid veggie, there is no guarantee that it will produce an offspring that’s at all like its parent.

The heirloom plants we know today are the result of thousands of years of people choosing individual plants that have desirable traits, saving their seeds, and planting them year after year. The incredible diversity of tomato varieties reflects the diversity of climate and culture they come from. There are juicy “slicing” tomatoes for fresh eating, dry flavorful tomatoes for sauces, small tart salad tomatoes, sweet tomatoes, tangy tomatoes, tomatoes that grow well in cold climates, tomatoes that grow well in wet climates...the variety is staggering.
Over the last 80 years, people in Wisconsin (and everywhere else in the the country) have begun to expect fresh summer vegetables like tomatoes to be readily available throughout the year. Mexico, Florida, and California now provide the vast majority of the tomatoes eaten in the U.S., which means that it’s necessary to grow fruit that can handle long-distance travel and still look good enough to buy from a grocer’s shelf. Plant breeders have developed hybridized tomato varieties that are up to the challenge, usually at the expense of flavor. These are the tasteless, yet perfectly red and round tomatoes that we have become all too accustomed to.

Heirloom qualities
Despite the incredible flavor of many of the heirloom varieties, they all lack one important characteristic: they do not hold up well to shipping. They are very fragile; they don’t ripen well off the vine; and they are easily damaged by the temperature extremes they might be exposed to during a long-distance trip. Once they get to the grocery store shelves, they are easily bruised by the excessive handling of stockers and shoppers.

Because they are so fragile, heirloom tomatoes require extra care during picking, packing, shipping, and display. This results in a higher retail price than you may be accustomed to paying for tomatoes. These are one thing that are worth treating yourself to.

Which Heirloom TomatoShould I Choose?
When you walk up to our heirloom tomato display you may be a bit overwhelmed by what you have to choose from. The flavor of each variety is unique, so choosing just the right one is not easy. If in doubt, you can always ask a produce clerk to cut some samples so that you know what you’re buying.

Color: You can tell a lot about a tomato by its color. Yellow tomatoes are the sweetest of all, with almost no acidic tang to their flavor. Orange tomatoes have a little more punch. Red tomatoes can be quite tangy, but not as tangy as the green varieties (yes, some heirlooms are green when ripe!). The “black” or dark purple varieties have a wonderful depth of flavor that results from a good balance of sweet and acid.

Size: Heirloom tomatoes can vary in size from tiny little cherry tomatoes to huge two-pound fruits. The important thing to remember when deciding on the size of your tomato is that you should choose one that’s small enough that you can use in one meal. Tomatoes should never be put in the refrigerator (the cold temperatures turn them mealy very quickly), so once you’ve cut one open it is best to use it immediately.

Intended Use: Most of the tomatoes that we sell at the Co-op have been selected for fresh eating. There are, however, many heirloom varieties that are intended for sauce or paste. These are usually firm, red, medium/small, intensely flavored, and relatively dry, so that it takes less time to cook the liquid off to make a nice thick sauce. These paste or sauce tomatoes make a wonderfully flavorful sauce, but are not very well suited for fresh eating.

Heirloom tomatoes are one of the most cherished flavors of the season: enjoy it!