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.
FOR THE RECORD: Nutritional information —The sodium content for many of the recipes in Wednesday’s Food section was incorrectly stated in grams, not milligrams. The correct sodium contents for the recipes are: eggplant stuffed with piquillos and manchego, 600 mg.; golden tomato soup with fennel, 274 mg.; heirloom tomato tart, 311 mg.; spinach-stuffed sunburst squash, 256 mg.; stuffed Provencal tomatoes, 384 mg.; tomato salad with pickled shallots, 424 mg.
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 createdIn 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.”
Nationwide demandHeirloom 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.
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.
Heirloom tomato tart
Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Servings: 6 to 8
Note: Thaw puff pastry according to package directions. Two sheets of 100% butter puff pastry may be substituted for the package of frozen puff pastry. Cut so two pieces sealed together will measure 18 1/2 inches long by 9 1/2 inches wide. Butter puff pastry is available at Nicole’s in South Pasadena and Surfas in Culver City.
3 cups thinly sliced onions
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
2 1/2 pounds tomatoes, preferably of different colors
1 (17.3-ounce) package frozen puff pastry, thawed
1/4 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
2 ounces pitted oil-cured black olives (about 17)
3/4 ounce pecorino-Romano cheese, shaved with a vegetable peeler
1/4 cup torn basil leaves
1. Combine the onions and 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet. Cook, covered, over medium heat until the onions soften, about 15 minutes. Stir to make sure the onions aren’t scorching, replace the cover and reduce the heat to low. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the onions are golden and sweet, about 45 minutes more. Remove from the heat and cool.
2. Cut the tomatoes in half vertically and then slice each half horizontally as thinly as you can. Arrange the sliced tomatoes on several jelly roll pans and sprinkle liberally with salt. Set the pans at a 5-inch slant and let the tomatoes give up their liquid for at least an hour.
3. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place a baking sheet in the oven to heat. Unfold the puff pastry sheets. Break the egg into a bowl and lightly beat with a fork. Use a pastry brush to paint a 1-inch strip of egg wash along one narrow side of one puff pastry sheet. Arrange the second sheet so it is overlapping just along the painted edge and press to seal. The puff pastry should be about 18 1/2 inches long by 9 1/2 inches wide.
4. Transfer the pastry to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle the bread crumbs down the center, leaving a 2-inch wide border around the pastry sheet. Scatter the cooled cooked onions on top of the bread crumbs. (They are a seasoning only and will not make a uniform layer.) Place the tomato slices on paper towels and pat dry to remove excess moisture. (Reserve tomato water for another use.) Arrange the tomatoes down the center in overlapping slices and alternating colors on top of the onions. Drizzle the 2 teaspoons of oil over the top of the tomatoes. Scatter the pitted olives over the tomatoes and then the shaved pecorino over everything.
5. Fold the top and bottom edges of the puff pastry over to barely overlap the tomato filling. Cut out a 1-inch square from each of four corners so when you fold over the sides the corners will not be too thick. Brush the egg wash to seal the corners so they don’t open during baking. Paint the borders with egg wash and place on the heated baking sheet. Bake until the pastry is puffed and dark brown, about 30 minutes.
6. Remove from the oven and scatter the torn basil leaves over the top. Let cool to room temperature before serving.
Each of 8 servings: 471 calories; 8 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 31 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 29 grams cholesterol; 311 grams sodium.**
Golden tomato soup with fennel
Total time: 45 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6
2 cups ( 3/4-inch) cubes bread, crusts removed
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons chopped red onion
2 pounds golden tomatoes, chopped
1/2 cup chopped fennel (about 1/2 bulb)
Lemon juice, divided
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Dash pimenton de la vera, or paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
1 cup ice water
1/2 cup finely diced fennel (about 1/2 bulb), for garnish
3 teaspoons minced fennel fronds, for garnish
1. Place the bread in a bowl and add enough water to cover. Let stand at least 30 minutes to soften. Squeeze the bread dry and put it in the blender with the garlic, onion, tomatoes and the chopped fennel. Purée until smooth. Add the juice of half a lemon, the vinegar, pimenton, cumin and 1 teaspoon of salt and purée again. With the motor running, in batches if necessary, gradually add the one-fourth cup oil and the ice water. Chill well.
2. In a small bowl, stir together the finely diced fennel and the minced fronds. Moisten with the remaining 1 teaspoon of oil and season with a couple drops of lemon juice and a sprinkling of salt.
3. Before serving, stir the purée through a fine mesh strainer if you want a perfectly smooth soup. Otherwise, whisk it to gently reincorporate anything that might have separated. Taste and add more salt if necessary. Divide evenly among 4 to 6 chilled soup bowls and garnish with 1 to 2 tablespoons of the diced fennel mixture before serving.
Each of 6 servings: 132 calories; 2 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 274 grams sodium.**
Tomato salad with pickled shallots and goat cheese croutons
Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6
Note: This looks best with tomatoes of different colors.
2 shallots, sliced moderately thin
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
1/4 pound fresh goat cheese
3 tablespoons minced chives (about 1 bunch)
1 baguette (about 3/4 pound)
1 1/4 pounds tomatoes, sliced into 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick rounds
Freshly ground pepper
1. Combine the shallots and the vinegar in a small bowl and set aside at least 1 hour. Combine the garlic and one-fourth cup of the oil in another small bowl and set aside at least 30 minutes. In a small bowl beat together the goat cheese and chives.
2. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Slice the baguette at a sharp angle to create 8 long, three-fourths-inch thick spears of bread. Strain the garlic from the olive oil and brush the bread on both sides with the oil. Discard the garlic or save for another use. Place bread on a baking sheet and bake until golden, 25 to 30 minutes.
3. Put the tomatoes in a wide bowl and season well with salt and pepper. Strain the vinegar from the shallots into a small bowl and then beat in the remaining one-fourth cup of oil. Pour this over the tomatoes and toss gently to coat the slices without breaking them.
4. Rap each toasted baguette slice rather sharply in about the middle with the back of a chef’s knife to break it into a couple of large, rough pieces. Spread each piece with the goat cheese mixture.
5. Arrange the dressed tomatoes in a wide serving bowl or on plates, being careful to mix colors and sizes. Carefully separate the shallot slices into individual rings and scatter them over top. Arrange the bread spears around the outside and serve.
Each of 6 servings: 388 calories; 9 grams protein; 35 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 24 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 9 grams cholesterol; 424 grams sodium.