The best tomato I’ve ever eaten was not an heirloom.
It was a Sungold. An orange orb of joy tossed with olive oil, lemon thyme, salt and pepper resting next to a piece of creamy burrata.
Sungolds are a modern hybrid tomato. But their thin skin and juicy interior make them prone to splitting. This means that Sungolds are very rarely grown far away and sent on a cross-country journey to our tables. They are often raised by local farmers, picked when just ripe and eaten within a couple of days of that picking.
In my mind, that is what lends itself to great flavor in a tomato—being raised well, harvested just ripe and eaten quickly. And I prioritize flavor above all else in a tomato.
In the last couple of years the term “heirloom tomato” has entered the daily market-going lexicon. Every tomato that is gently set out on a farmer’s market table has become an “heirloom”. And I don’t always know what people are asking for when they insist on an heirloom. I think that they mean a tomato, which is grown locally, often funny looking, not always red-n-round and never tastes of cardboard.
An heirloom tomato by definition is an open-pollenated plant that’s seeds have been passed down throughout the years. There is no consensus on how many generation’s hands need to have touched the seed to give it family heirloom status. There is no rule that heirlooms need to be grown locally.
By contrast, hybrids are tomatoes that have been bred to show the different characteristics of two different tomato parents in an attempt to select the best traits from each parent.
Hybrids get a bad wrap because people liken them to genetically modified foods, where scientists splice various traits into the genetic material up of the plant. GMO is more common to the large-scale commodity crops to breed a trait that is not found in nature—resistance to synthetic herbicides for example. There are currently no GMO tomatoes on the market.
I’m not a scientist, but this is how I picture the difference. An heirloom tomato is like a thoroughbred horse that has been bred year after year to show the best of the bloodline. A hybrid is a mule—a natural combination of horse and donkey but that is sterile and so cannot be passed down generation to generation. A GMO is like a unicorn. Again, not a scientist.
Heirloom tomatoes have come back into favor as shoppers seek out more flavorful tomatoes with a variety of looks. With the advent of cross-country refrigerated shipping, tomatoes could be grown in the dead of winter, picked green, ripened with ethylene gas and arrive on super market shelves looking glossy and red.
Large farms needed a way to standardize and consolidate their tomato harvest so tomatoes were bred to produce fruit all at one time, determinant varieties. They were bred to withstand being jostled for lots and lots of miles on their way to those shelves. And they were bred to be big, round slicers. They were bred for lots of reasons besides flavor.
Similarly there are lots of tomatoes that have been bred for flavor—like the Sungolds. These modern hybrids do not have the historical legacy of some of the best known heirlooms like Brandywine, Cherokee Purple and Aunt Ruby’s German Green. But they taste great and provide a lot of options for selecting the best tomato for your growing environment.
And that’s how Jess chooses the tomatoes that we grow each year—tomatoes that we know taste good, grow well in our garden and that fulfill our particular mix of needs. We always grow several a mixture of cherry tomatoes, because they look beautiful together and their slightly different flavors play off each other well in a salad.
We grow a variety of slicing tomatoes. Some of which are hybrids that are red and round and come on early, like the New Girls, good for us because we have a short season. And we always grow Cherokee Purples because their dark colored flesh is so juicy and delicious, despite the fact they never sell well because they have green shoulders and look under ripe. And we love the Pink Accordion with its delicate flavor and gentle ribs. It’s hard to pare down our own seed selection.
And we always grow the Amish Paste tomato to sell for canning tomatoes and making sauce. It is an heirloom tomato that has a higher yield and better flavor then the other pasters we’ve grown in the past.
Heirloom or not, I encourage you to go to your farmer’s market and ask for the tomato that they think tastes the best. And then pick out a couple that are so funny looking that they will tickle your fancy and your tongue.
Tomato Bread Salad with Corn, Zucchini and Cucumbers
Tomatoes lend an acidic punch to lots of things. That acidity lifts the flavor of very rich foods—in this case the starch of bread, the fat of olive oil and the creamy flavor of corn. The key to this salad is good tasting tomatoes and a variety of herbs. The little pops of flavor that the herbs add an often-indefinable essence to make this dish memorable.
½ loaf of good bread
1 cucumber, washed
1 zucchini or summer squash, washed
1 qt cherry tomatoes, mix of colors and shapes
2 ears of corn, kernelled
½ C mixed herbs (parsley, basil, tarragon, anise hyssop, lemon balm, thyme)
salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 400F
- Toss the kernels of corn with olive oil, salt and a pinch of chili flakes (optional) and roast until slightly brown and sweet (15 min)
- Cut slices of bread and then tear croutons that are slightly larger than bite size
- Toss the bread with olive oil, salt and pepper and bake until crispy on the edges but still slightly soft in the center (10 min)
- Dice the cucumbers into ¼” cubes
- Shave the zucchini or summer squash with a mandolin or very sharp knife into thin ribbons
- Cut the tomatoes in half and sprinkle with a pinch of salt and grind of pepper
- Wash and dry the picked herbs
- Toss all together with a healthy glug of olive oil and taste
- If the tomatoes are very sweet, add a splash of sherry vinegar to brighten the whole lot up