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It's Tomato Season

By Andrea Jaeger, Spring 2016

Late May through early August, a dazzling assortment of tomatoes adorn the tables of vendors at local farmers markets across the region. Ranging in sizes from tiny currant-types to 2-pound beefsteak varietals, these tomatoes deliciously delight our senses with complex flavors, bright colors, interesting patterns and shapes, and yearn to be incorporated into dinner.

For many local farmers, the driving force behind which varieties they choose to grow is flavor. “Everything we grow, we eat,” says Walter Clarke of Rainbow Hill Farm, McMinville, TN.  “If it doesn’t taste good, I won’t grow it.” He adds, “It’s something we even put on our market sign: ‘We grow flavor.’ I don’t care about appearance. I want it to taste good!”

Carol Clarke, Walter’s wife, says she and her husband grow over 12 heirloom and newer varieties of tomatoes each year, “because they sell real well and we love tomatoes!” They determine which varieties they offer by sorting through seed catalogs, searching for names they know, and handpicking those with descriptions that most intrigue them. Occasionally, customers ask for specific varieties, which the Clarke’s incorporate into their repertoire if they seem popular with their other shoppers.

“It’s always an experiment,” says Carol. “We like to try out different varieties,” adds Walter. “If they’re popular, we grow them. If not, we’ll try something new.”

The Campbell tomato, which is the original heirloom variety bred for the infamous soup for which it’s named, is a favorite of theirs to grow. “50 years ago, I came across it,” says Walter. “It was growing around Vineland, NJ, where the Campbell’s plants were. I’d go down there and buy cases of them at auction for us to eat.” He said that once he moved out of the region, the Campbell was less available, so he turned to other varieties. “I thought I must be getting old, because tomatoes didn’t taste as good. So, I tried growing the Campbell’s variety. I ordered a bunch of plants, set them out, and when the first one got ripe, I ate it and thought to myself, ‘Ah ha! I’m not getting old! It’s the damn tomatoes!’“

Rachel Otto of White Oak Valley Farm, McDonald TN, specializes in heirloom tomatoes and over 100 varieties of heirloom vegetable seeds. She and her brother, Jonathan, sell their produce at several area farmers markets and online, offering varieties that appeal to their customer-base.

“Customers always seem drawn to cherry tomatoes,” she says. “There is such a wide array of flavors, colors, sizes, and shapes, they never seem to get old. We grow several varieties but customers always love “Blue Berry” tomatoes - a truly blue/black tomato that ripens red on the bottom to dark blue on top- and “Chocolate Cherry” tomatoes - a dusky purple/red cherry tomato similar is flavor and color to Cherokee Purple.” 

One key component to what makes these tomatoes so flavorful and the demand for them so strong is freshness. Many local farmers are eager to select tomatoes that appeal to their and their customers’ whims and fancies, rather than types that can be shipped long distances, stored for long periods of time, and resemble generic, lackluster tomatoes that haunt our hamburgers and lurk within our burritos. Oftentimes, these commercial tomatoes are picked green and left to ripen during shipment and storage, which results in fruits that are mealy and flavorless, adding little more than a bit of pale, cadaverous color to one’s dish. Most local farmers instead allow their fruits to ripen fully on the vine, enabling maximum flavor.

Growing plants for oneself is a method for ardent tomato enthusiasts, like the Clarke’s and Otto’s, to supply their kitchens with the freshest, most unique types of tomatoes available. When selecting varieties for personal planting, one should consider the ultimate intent of the fated fruit. Some plants produce meaty, deeply flavorful, elongated fruits that are best for canning and saucing, while others produce large, juicy, and wide fruits that, when sliced in rounds are great for sandwiches. 

“I love an old-fashioned variety called ‘Mule Team’ for its robust flavor and nice slices that are the perfect size to go on a sandwich,” says Otto.  

Many growers will also select plants for their sweet snack-ability.  Small cherry tomatoes, Sungold in particular, lend themselves to be enjoyed raw from the garden; fresh-picked and popped whole into one’s mouth before they even make it into the kitchen.

Otto also includes currant tomatoes in her list of favorites. “They are so tiny but with an amazing burst of flavor,” she says. “They are terrible to pick because they are so little and squish easily…but I always make sure to grow a few plants to enjoy each year!”

Growth habit is another factor to take into account. Tomato plants are generally separated into two categories: determinate, which produce a flush of fruits that ripen all at once, and indeterminate, which continue to produce throughout the season until the exhausted plant can bear no more. For folks who like to “put up” tomatoes, determinate varieties are better suited, as simultaneous ripening allows for one bountiful harvest which can then be sauced and canned all at once. For those who prefer a supply of fresh-eating tomatoes all season long, the indeterminate varieties offer a prolonged, steadier return.

Mike Barron, Crabtree Farms’ greenhouse manager adds that if taste is of utmost importance, “indeterminate varieties generally have the most flavor, as the plant is concentrating its sugars into fewer fruit at a time.”

(It’s important to note that the indeterminate types will often require stakes and trellises in order to prevent top-heaviness and toppling.)

For anyone who might consider experimenting with the more exotic types of tomatoes this year, Rachel Otto shares this advice:

“Every year, choose a few varieties to try, and save the ones you like and the ones that grow best in your location. Eventually, you will have a garden full of favorites that grow well in your micro-climate. And the harvests are most definitely worth the effort!”

Recommend tomato varieties:

Slicers (great for sandwiches)
  • Amana Orange
  • Brandywine
  • Cherokee Purple
  • Church
  • Mortgage Lifter
  • Moskovich
  • Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye
  • Rutgers
  • Super Beefsteak
  • Valencia

Paste/Sauces
  • Amish Gold Slicer
  • Black Krim
  • Ficarazzi
  • Jersey Devil
  • San Marzano
  • Striped Roman
  • Umberto Pink
  • Vintage Wine

Salads
  • Bella Rosa
  • Black Cherry
  • Black Pear
  • Caro Rich
  • Dr. Wyches Yellow
  • Druzba
  • White Zebra

Salsas – Mike Barron  suggests including green, yellow, and orange varieties to salsas because they add a naturally citrusy flavor
  • Green Zebra
  • Pink Beauty
  • Striped German
  • Valencia
  • Snacking -
  • Ceylon
  • Honeybunch Red Grape
  • Peacevine Cherry
  • Sungold Cherry
  • Super Sweet 100 Cherry
  • Tommy Toe