"For all practical purposes, these are not in wide distribution," he says. "There is such a problem with shelf life on these tomatoes, you tend to find them if you're near where a grower is located. Right now we're talking to a major food service company up in Canada that would give anything to have them, but we can't get them up there. We're lucky to be here in California where we can get them."
Brammer grows about 25 varieties of tomatoes on 50 acres. He staggers his plantings so he is able to harvest from June through October. With this volume and long season, he is able to ship his tomatoes to Whole Foods stores throughout the chain. Because of that, he has to harvest a little earlier than would be optimum, with about a five- to seven-day shelf life, which is typical.
Because the tomatoes are so fragile, and to shorten the time between producing and selling, some stores are allowing farmers to bypass the normal distribution channels. Gary Ibsen, whose Carmel-based Tomato Fest Organic Heirlooms supplies Whole Foods stores in Central California, has arranged to deliver directly to individual stores rather than go through the central warehouse. This cuts the shelf-life requirements to two days.
This extra ripeness creates its own set of problems. "Customers have to be trained how to handle these tomatoes," he says. "You can't just buy them and store them in the refrigerator for a week. You eat them right away and then go back and get more."
Ibsen says he began selling the chain 40 pounds of tomatoes a week 10 years ago and is now up to 4 tons. "That's only because customers have learned the difference," he says. "They've given up the fear of the dark purple tomato."
Heirloom tomatoes aren't just a California thing, either. L.A.-based specialty produce distributor Melissa's ships them across the country. "We sell them to major chains from New York to Chicago," says public relations director Robert Schueller. He says sales are increasing at a rate of roughly 20% a year.
But all of this raises the question of whether a tomato grown, harvested and shipped this way is that much of an improvement over the standard supermarket varieties. After all, farming is not manufacturing, and there's a lot more that goes into the quality of the final product than brand name. Buying a Brandywine is not the same as buying a Buick.
LeHoullier is of two minds about the question. On the one hand, he would never even consider buying an heirloom (or almost any other) tomato at the supermarket because it is picked at what he considers an undesirable stage of ripeness. He worries that this might give the varieties a bad name to some shoppers. "They'll pay a lot of money for them at the grocery, and they'll think it's just not very good."
On the other hand, he hopes that seeing these different varieties will pique the interest of at least a few people and convert them to the tomato cause. "If selling heirlooms makes the general public aware that there's life beyond the ordinary red tomato," LeHoullier says, "that's a good thing. Maybe that will lead them to get curious enough to grow some. It's the growing of these that keeps them alive.
"Our society is full of fads. Heirlooms are just another fad. What I hope will happen, though, is that all of these farmers growing them will keep them alive. That way when people move on to the next best thing, there will still be some around.."
Still, fad or no, being able to find a tomato with real flavor and character at the supermarket is something just short of a miracle. "I firmly believe," LeHoullier says, "that unless people eat a vine-ripe Cherokee Purple or Brandywine or Andrew Rahart's Jumbo Red, I don't think they can understand what a tomato can be."
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A who's who of heirloom tomatoes
A good store-bought heirloom tomato will remind you of the best backyard tomato you've ever tasted. But how do you tell a good one? And maybe just as important, why bother if you're just going ruin it by sticking it in the refrigerator?
Tomatoes are climacteric fruits, like peaches and nectarines. They will continue to ripen — changing color and texture — after they've been picked. Because color also varies so much depending on variety, the best way to tell a ripe tomato is how it feels. The skin should be taut, not slack, but it should betray a certain squishiness within. A perfectly ripe tomato feels like it is about to burst in your hand.