Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter -- these are names that make a tomato lover’s heart race. They conjure up images of backyard plants grown from hard-sought seeds, of rare fruit bursting in summer’s heat. Names that make farmers market shoppers think smugly: “You won’t find that in the supermarket.”
Well, you’d better look again. Heirloom tomatoes, which not so long ago were available only to food cultists, now can be bought in your local high-end grocery.
The speed with which these tomatoes have gone from gardening fringe to supermarket mainstream is startling. But while hard-core tomato fans are glad to see these old varieties finding new popularity, many question whether something vital is being lost in translation. Is an old tomato variety that’s grown, picked and packed by modern commercial standards really worth celebrating?
You’ll probably recognize heirloom tomatoes first by their imperfections. They are plainly and outspokenly old-fashioned. They tend to have unusual shapes and odd colors. They wear their wrinkles and blemishes as signs of character. Amid the perfect uniformity of the modern produce section, they stick out like the Queen Mum at a fashion shoot.
But their appeal is undeniable -- and profitable. While most tomatoes are selling for less than $2 a pound, the heirlooms are going for as much as $6. Even at those prices, there is no shortage of buyers. At Whole Foods markets, heirloom tomatoes are summer’s No. 1-selling produce item in terms of dollars spent, says Mark Wilson, the chain’s Southern Pacific region produce coordinator.
The chain began selling them seven or eight years ago, but only in the last couple of summers have they really caught on. “Compared to three years ago, we’re probably at least double the sales,” Wilson said. “We’re trying to get them into people’s mouths and into their carts. We do tastings all the time and we encourage team members to sample them out. If anyone has questions, we want them to whip out their knife and give them a taste.”
The same is true at Bristol Farms, says produce manager Raul Gallegos. “In the last five years, our sales have probably quadrupled. Last year was huge for us.”
Most of these heirloom tomatoes are varieties that were handed down through families and friends. Someone would grow a great tomato, and a neighbor would want seeds. Because these were mostly backyard fruit, the only criterion for quality was taste, not disease resistance or ship-ability.
These tomatoes are open-pollinated, as opposed to hybrid, so their seeds will grow plants that are the same variety as the parents. Though there is no formal definition of “heirloom,” it usually means the variety has been around for at least three generations (there are exceptions: the popular Green Zebra was developed only in 1985 by Bakersfield’s Tom Wagner).
Seed exchange created
In the 1970s, a few hardy collectors began working to preserve the seeds of these old tomatoes and other vegetables. Then an Iowa couple, Barbara and Kent Whealey, founded Seed Savers Exchange to serve as a kind of clearinghouse.
It was as part of Seed Savers that Craig LeHoullier, a North Carolina-based pharmaceutical chemist, “discovered” the Cherokee Purple. “I got a letter from a guy named J.D. Green in Sevierville, Tenn., who said, ‘I hear you like tomatoes. Maybe you’ll be interested in this purple one the Cherokee Indians gave my neighbors 100 years ago.’
“I thought it would be another pink tomato like the Brandywine -- pink was the fashionable color for tomatoes at the turn of the century. But I grew it, and it turned out to be this absolutely delicious purple tomato. It just needed a name, so I gave it the obvious one.”
The 1980s “gourmet gardening” movement gave heirlooms a big push. Through catalogs such as Renee’s Garden, you could grow the same varieties served at Chez Panisse. Then came farmers markets. Finally, more chefs got on board and introduced them to diners in restaurants. Josie LeBalch serves tomatoes from her own garden at her Santa Monica restaurant, Josie.
There are thousands of types of heirloom tomatoes available today (Seed Savers lists more than 5,000), but there are only a couple dozen commercially important ones. Most stores will stock five or six types, using the diversity of colors and shapes as a marketing hook.
That same diversity is reflected in taste and texture. The Brandywine, for example, is treasured for its deep, pure tomato flavor, while the Green Zebra is nearly lemony. Some, such as Hillbilly or Pineapple, are almost sweet, while others, such as Black Zebra or Lime Green Salad, are extremely tart.
Though these tomatoes all have qualities to recommend them, they also have significant drawbacks, which is why they fell by the wayside. They are prone to harmless but distracting cosmetic blemishes. More seriously, almost all heirlooms have much thinner skins than modern commercial varieties. This skin is easily punctured, leading to rapid spoilage.
Despite the continuing success of heirloom tomatoes in high-end stores, they rate barely a blip in terms of the mammoth, overall tomato market. Ed Beckman of the California Tomato Commission, a growers trade group, says that of the roughly 36,000 acres of tomatoes grown in the state, these high-end varieties account for “maybe a couple hundred.”
“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.”
In fact, most of the heirlooms sold in Southern California stores are grown in the area. Almost all of Whole Foods’ tomatoes come from Be Wise Ranch near Rancho Santa Fe. Farmer Bill Brammer sells a wide variety of organic produce to the chain and began growing heirlooms about eight or nine years ago, he says. In addition to Whole Foods, he sells through a community-supported agriculture program and through his own farm stand.
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.”
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.
And never, ever, store tomatoes in the refrigerator. Chilling damages the flavor irreparably. Buy only enough for a couple of days and keep them on the counter.
Here are some of the more common varieties:
Black Krim: Sometimes called “Black Crimson” or “Black Crim,” this extremely flavorful tomato hails from the Black Sea area once called Krim now referred to as Crimea. A dark red tomato with shoulders so dark green they appear black.
Brandywine: Probably the most popular of the heirlooms. There are several strains of Brandywine, from deep red to yellow. The original is a large, pinkish tomato with an amazingly deep flavor.
Cherokee Purple: Gary Ibsen perfectly describes the color of this tomato as “dusky rose.” It is a relatively low-acid tomato with a slightly sweet, meaty flavor.
Costoluto Genovese: Dark crimson, with pronounced lobes and crevices, this is a deeply flavored, tart Italian heirloom treasured for eating and cooking.
Dona: This round, glossy red tomato looks like a generic slicer (it was bred as a commercial tomato in France), but there is no mistaking the nearly perfect sweet-tart flavor balance.
Earl of Edgecomb: A golden orange tomato, the Earl is firm and meaty with a rich flavor.
Green Zebra: This striped variety can be delicious or crunchy and flavorless. Choose ones with a slight give and a dark, creamy green background.
Marvel Striped: Originally from Oaxaca, this is a giant, orange tomato with red stripes and a sweet, fruity flavor.
Yellow Ruffle: Is it a tomato? Is it a bell pepper? It’s hard to tell at first glance. The flavor is mild and sweet.