Apr 7, 2007
Search for Taste Leads to Rediscovering Old Tomato Varieties

Heirloom tomatoes aren’t just “the old kind” like your folks grew in the garden when you were really young.

They may be old, but many are unfamiliar to you or anybody you know. They could be somebody else’s heirloom, perhaps coming here from Italy or Eastern Europe after the Iron Curtain fell.

An heirloom can be anybody’s open-pollinated, local variety – and the world is full of localities.

There are heirloom tomatoes everybody has heard of ¬– like that big-slicing beefsteak Brandywine – and there are heirlooms somebody else found and brought here from far away – like the 52-day Stulpice from the Czech Republic that can give producers in the northern U.S. ripe tomatoes in mid-July.

Like peppers, they come in many colors ¬– red, pink, white, yellow, orange, green, purple and black. Some are striped; others grow inside husks, like the ground cherries and tomatillos.

When it comes to tomatoes, it’s not just old, it’s diversity beyond imagination.

James Weaver of Meadow View Farm near Kutztown, Pa., grows about 100 varieties now. He spoke about them at a sustainable farming conference last winter in Geneva, N.Y.

“For many farmers, heirlooms hold no promise,” he said. “They are disease-prone and low on yield. They can’t be shipped. But for market farmers like myself, heirlooms are a drawing card, providing an opportunity to offer something new. The customers comment, ‘Such color! Such shape! How pretty! How ugly!’

“They are fascinated. The rewarding variety of tastes: rich, mellow, winey, mild, full, fruity, plumy, lemony. The visual reward: a kaleidoscope of shape and color.

“The most enduring reward to me of growing heirloom varieties is the rich variety of people they attract to my farm stand.”

Weaver became interested in heirloom tomatoes shortly after he discovered the bounty of peppers. He grows 200 kinds of those. And eggplant, too, is diverse and interesting (in the same family as peppers and tomatoes) and he grows several colors and shapes of that as well. He sells both the fruit and the plants.

Weaver credits two things with growing the market for heirloom tomatoes.

One is taste, the other the nostalgic feeling that we may have lost or be losing something important.

“Taste was rediscovered,” he said.

In 1993, he said, he saw heirloom pepper varieties offered by the Maine seed company Johnny’s Selected Seeds. The peppers caught on fast, because Americans were becoming interested in hotter kinds of ethnic foods from Mexico and the Far East.

“I could not survive with just hot peppers. The customer base is too narrow,” Weaver said.

He makes more money with his heirloom tomatoes. He also grows 14 acres of sweet corn and three to four acres of melons and cantaloupes, he said.

When Weaver started growing heirloom tomatoes in 1993 after Johnny’s Selected Seeds began offering the seed, the first few years he couldn’t give the tomatoes away, he said. Now he grows 100 varieties. He said once customers discover how they taste they come back for more.

Americans have a habit of buying with their eyes, he said, and “we were ahead of the curve with the tomatoes. We offered some heirloom varieties at the market and they didn’t sell well. Finally, we just handed them out free and people discovered there was flavor there.”

The other factor, he said, is related to GMOs.

“People tend to think food shouldn’t have these things in it,” he said of genetically engineered crops containing genes from other species.

This is “sort of a mind thing,” he said, but it has had a broad effect.

“People started to think that maybe even hybrids carried things too far, that maybe we’d given up flavor to get things like shipping quality. We’re located pretty close to Rodale here and the organic mind-set is pretty strong.”

The idea that heirlooms were old, stable varieties – open-pollinated – that had stood the test of time became attractive. In the final analysis, the market began to shift toward flavor and local production, Weaver said.

He found customers at his farm market, at a local produce auction and also at Wegmans in nearby Allentown. Wegmans is a supermarket chain that caters to high-end customers and offers foods produced both organically and using IPM methods. Weaver uses IPM.

If you look at the seed catalogs containing heirloom tomatoes, they fall into three categories: old, foreign and odd. You can find them on the Internet at Web sites like www.Johnnyseeds.com and www.heirloomtomatoes.com.

Old varieties include such open-pollinated ones as Brandywine, the sandwich-size slicer often called the best-tasting tomato ever. Mortgage Lifter, Amish paste and Kentucky Beefsteak are old, reliable varieties, as are Red Pear and Yellow Pear, the pear-shaped, cherry-sized varieties.

Some are old and a bit odd – like Cherokee Purple, White Wonder and Green Grape. Green Zebra isn’t old, but it’s a striped tomato that is ripe when it’s still green. Tomatillos caught on after people acquired the taste for salsa.

As Weaver noted, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Iron Curtain brought in varieties like the Russian Black Krim and Siberian, the Bulgaria Drazba, the Czech Stulpice, the Polish Giant and Eva’s Purple Ball and Striped German from Germany. Trouble in the Middle East has brought people – and tomatoes – like Omar’s Lebanese.

“Many of these varieties have a story associated with them,” Weaver said.

Actually, Weaver had a hand in naming one, Paulina. He met a family that gave him seed that had been in the family for years, he said. They told him how the seed had moved with the family from Italy to Slovakia and then to here, but it had no name.

“I suggested they name it, so they did, after their mom,” he said.

“Market gardening has become very exciting,” Weaver said.

He grows about 20 acres of produce and has been shifting away from sweet corn to more peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, melons, Indian corn, pumpkins and gourds. He grows 40 kinds of pumpkins and gourds, including what he calls his “peanut pumpkin.” The seed came from France and produces orange pumpkins with warty growths that look like peanuts.

“Unusual things are becoming ‘hot,'” he said.

People are starting to go for eggplant that is not just black and oval.

“Some other kinds taste better,” he said.

Eggplant comes in white, green and purple, in long slender shapes, in stripes.

It’s becoming easier to find and buy heirloom seeds. If you’re really into it, you can join the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, Weaver said. It’s a network of growers and gardeners, mostly small-scale, dedicated to preserving open-pollinated heirloom vegetables, fruits and nuts. Members contribute seed and grow seeds contributed by other members to keep a healthy supply of seed.

Weaver is helped in his operation by his wife, Alma, and sons Harold and Mervin. They’ve been retailing vegetables since the mid-1980s.

Each year, the Weavers host a vegetable field day at the farm, and people turn out to pick their own. It’ll be Sept. 9 and 10 this year. What started as a hot pepper day in 1993 overflowed in 1995 into a nearby park and became the Chili Pepper Festival, with bands and 60 vendors featuring hot food. Heirloom tomatoes fit right in. Look it up on the Web at www.chilepepperfestival.com.

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