August 22, 2018
The seeds of heirloom tomatoes have been passed down from generation to generation for decades, even centuries. There are hundreds of varieties from around the world that each tells its own unique story. But what makes a tomato variety “heirloom” and are they really that worth saving?
The History of Heirloom Tomatoes
Even though tomatoes are native to our southern neighbor, Mexico, they only became popular in America by way of a wave of immigrants from Southern Europe in the early 1800s. The tomato had found a home there several centuries before when Spanish explorers brought them back from the new world.
When tomatoes were first cultivated by home gardeners and farmers in the US, they were a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Each group of immigrants came with their own seeds. At the time they were still known simply as “tomatoes,” there was no such term as “heirloom.” But those early varieties that had been saved by farmers for generations and brought to the US were thin-skinned, juicy, exceptionally flavorful, and diverse – and they thrived here, continuing to change and improve just slightly one season to the next.
But then World War II came along. Major infrastructure and refrigeration developments made it easier to transport fresh food far and wide. Farmers and traders saw an opportunity: people in seasonal cities like New York could eat tomatoes all winter long if they were trucked up from Florida. There was just one road block: the sensitive, flavorful varieties that had been grown for centuries were too delicate to make the long journey.
Eventually, hybridization programs were started to breed tomatoes with uniform size, shape, color, and skin thickness that could be picked green to withstand long travels and artificially ripened to red later. They had longer shelf life and better disease resistance, but all this occurred at the expense of flavor, texture, and diversity (hybrids cannot reproduce naturally, they are sterile, and will therefore never evolve, and the seeds cannot be saved, just manufactured again). Despite that trade off, changes in the food distribution system and demands for year-round supply from consumers meant these flavorless varieties stuck. They became the norm - and still are today.
Luckily, some passionate gardeners and farmers have been saving those old varieties from before the standardization of the tomato. They may have changed, but they’re still wildly diverse and incredibly flavorful. To differentiate these naturally occurring seeds from their hybrid counterparts, the term “heirloom” was coined, referring to the ability to save their seeds and regrow them again the next year.
Recently, there has been a resurgence in interest in these historic varieties. Small and mid-scale growers are bringing them back into the line-up, and specialty seed companies are working to preserve rare varieties with exceptional characteristics. Summer farmers markets in temperate regions of the US abound with a rainbow of tomato varieties. Even greenhouse growers are experimenting with production of these more flavorful tomatoes – although nothing will ever beat a very ripe heirloom tomato grown close to home.
Popular Heirloom Varieties
Heirloom tomato varieties vary greatly in size, shape, color, and taste. Each variety is bred for flavor, ranging from sweet to tart, mild to strong, perfumed and fruity, to dark and smoky. Their color and size also fluctuate depending on the variety; colors range from red to orange to purple to green (mature), and even striped or marbled. By nature, they are erratically shaped, and can be pear-shaped, round, scalloped, lobed, or shaped like hearts. The skin of the heirloom can be smooth or slightly rigid. Some common characteristics each variety shares are their tenderness, thin skin, meaty flesh, and few seeds. Lucky for us, every heirloom tomato is picked at full maturity, so their flavor and texture are at their peak.
There are hundreds of variations of heirloom tomatoes, but there are still only a handful of varieties that are more mainstream than most, like:
Heirloom tomatoes are in peak season in the Mid-Atlantic from July through September. They are available in limited quantities from greenhouse growers during the remainder of the year.
Storage & Handling
Because heirloom tomatoes are harvested when they are ripe, they’re very fragile and need to be handled gently to avoid bruising. Due to their thin skin, it is normal to see cracking, brown scars and odd shapes or bulges that are very natural and should be celebrated! They should always be stored above 50° F and never refrigerated.
Heirloom tomatoes can be used like you would any tomato, but they are best served simply and raw. Because of their high-water content, they do not take well to cooking and should be avoided in sauces, tarts, or pizzas – but can be used to make a delicious tomato water for use in cold soups or drinks. More classically: serve thick slices of heirloom tomato with soft cheeses like fresh mozzarella and burrata. Dress with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and sprinkle with fresh herbs like basil or mint. Use in classic BLTs, top juicy burgers or lay atop avocado toast.
Heirloom Tomatoes, Seasonal, Tomato