Veggie of the Week - Tomatoes
sponsored by Coleman Farms
'Heirloom', like 'collectable', has a strong connection to what's known as 'marketing' (as if calling it something special made it either more respectable or more scientific than salesmanship), and as the first pair of the sites we link to show, there's some vagueness and, perhaps, marketing, associated with the term itself. This notwithstanding, 'heirloom' can still support a useful semantic load in certain contexts, the Santa Barbara Farmer's Market being one of them, a place where you'll find it used of tomatoes, potatoes, and of some fruit, likely to include melons and apples. This week we concentrate on the tomatoes.
Given their widespread cultivation in differing climates, often in areas removed from commerce, tomatoes likely exist in a number of varieties relatively close to that of chiles, yet what do you find at the store?: two or three kinds of minimatos, the standard oblate spheroid of uniform yellow-red color, possibly also available in yellow, and plum tomatoes. There is much more, and, roughly speaking, these are the 'heirlooms'.
Putting considerations of marketing and the niceties of historical lexicography aside for the moment, a useful definition of 'heirloom' is 'not developed with the needs of large scale agriculture a major consideration'. Sift tomato cultivars with this, and what passes through are mainly varieties developed before the Second War and, since they haven't been cultivated on a large scale since (if they ever were), whose seeds aren't generally available from major seed companies. These will be pretty much the same set selected by one or other definition of 'heirloom'.
It's fair to ask what else we get besides history - which often smacks of fabrication - and scarcity value. "The needs of large scale agriculture" is the clue. Tomatoes possess a number of attractive properties, color, shape, texture, flavor and aroma among them. A hundred years ago a good tomato had flesh that was firm yet yielding to the bite, combined with lashings of that juice/seed gel special to the tomato. Unfortunately, they didn't travel well, the flesh bruising if, unsupported by the gel within, the tomato didn't burst, in response to rough handling.
The tomato is fairly malleable, so varieties with firmer flesh and less juice were developed that would ship well. These were further improved by breeding for uniform color, size and smooth spheroidal shape. It was possible to ship these fruit across country and have them look attractive when they arrived. This was important, since vision is the sense modern humans tend to rely on when shopping, particularly for food, where touching is discouraged and, in general, tasting not allowed, and only the trained resort to smell; and a photographic image of food yields only visual information. What was overlooked, or considered secondary, was texture, taste and aroma, which either by accident or constraints of the genome, decreased as the tomato's 'marketability' was enhanced.
The result is a tomato of a uniformity that is attractive the way any set of uniform objects - a display of cans of shaving cream, a line of bowling pins, a lotful of Hummers - is attractive, one that is reliably and uninterestingly firm, and that lacks most of the nuance of flavor, that mix of acid and sweet, the developing overtones of earth, compost, wine or tobacco, that combination of fruit and vegetable that is uniquely the tomato; and a product that has virtually none of the mysterious tomato aroma, that yellow-green pungent piquancy redolent of tomato caterpillars, bees and birdsong.
What's missing in your store-bought British Columbian hothouse tomato is what you'll find in a good heirloom. The gustatory properties inherent in these breeds are the more prominent because the fruit at the Farmer's Market will have been picked a day or two previous to purchase and travelled just over a hundred miles, maximum, and will not have been subjected to refrigeration, or even to cooling they wouldn't experience in the field. If you're old enough to remember old fashioned local tomatoes, and to wonder whether it's the tomatoes or your taste buds that are failing, eating a good heirloom can be very reassuring.
Heirloom tomatoes are available in a number of varieties, offering a range of size, color, and juciness (or fleshiness), and enjoyable differences in taste and, to a lesser extent, odor. You can use heirlooms anywhere a tomato fits. These tomatoes are typically juicier and somewhat more acid than modern ones and will contribute a lot towards a dressing; you might only want to add a bit of oil and a little vinegar. A good tomato is a meal, or at least a snack, in itself. You might want to add a slice of bread, some cracked pepper, a bit of French mustard or olive oil.
In view of the current concern about climate change, it's interesting that one of this week's links is adamant that tomatoes can not be raised out of doors in England, whereas another describes a variety of tomato that flourished in Lancashire (northern England) before the Second War, and that earlier in the century Heinz had large tomato farms north of London.
Available in Santa Barbara from Tutti Frutti, Windrose Farm , and Fairview Gardens (also selling in Montecito and Goleta), and possibly from other vendors.
photo courtesy of wikipedia.org