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Heirloom Tomatoes,
From Black Krims
to White Wonders,
Proliferate in
Farmers Markets

They're Hard to Grow for a Profit;
Varieties for Foggy Climates

By Mark Thompson

The Russians are coming! Russian tomatoes, that is. Thanks to the fall of the Iron Curtain, the globe-spanning efforts of a nonprofit group called Seed Savers Exchange and the proliferation of farmers markets, old-fashioned tomatoes from the former Soviet Bloc are now commercially available in the United States.


Illustration: Wendy Bailey


Farmers say some consumers are wary of tomatoes that aren't plump, round and red


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Smith & Hawken: 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden
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Taylor's Guide to Heirloom Vegetables: A Complete Guide to the Best Historic and Ethnic Varieties
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Heirloom Vegetable Gardening
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Tomato Links

Visit the tomato section in Seasonal Chef's online bookstore, which also carries books about heirloom vegetables.

Tomato recipes from Sicily and Provence and culinary tips on selecting and handling tomatoes.

The Tomato Wonderland newsletter, by Nigel and Frances Walker, of Eatwell Farms, who sell produce at Northern California farmers markets.

 


Seed Savers, a group that links small-scale growers around the world in a seed-exchange network dedicated to preserving thousands of heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, has sponsored seven seed-collecting expeditions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics in recent years, employing local botanists in need of work. 

Three years ago, the group, headquartered in Decorah, Iowa, unveiled the "Russian Collection" for distribution to Seed Saver members and the general public. Farmers markets enter the picture because they are just about the only possible commercial outlet for fragile varieties that don’t hold up in transit or, just as problematic, don’t look like people think good tomatoes are supposed to look.

The Russian tomatoes have joined about 4,000 other heirlooms, open-pollinated hand-me-downs, on the Seed Savers list. The East Bloc varieties have introduced some never-before-seen tomato traits to the West. For example, there is the ferny, carrot-like foliage of one variety dubbed the Silvery Fir Tree. And there is an array of varieties with a unique enzyme just under the skin that renders them a deep brown-maroon color that is close enough to have earned them the name black.

Dennis Stowell, who grows on his farm 45 miles northeast of San Diego and sells at farmers markets in Ocean Beach and Chula Vista, is one farmer who has enthusiastically taken on the challenge of marketing tomatoes colored black. Of the dozen or more heirloom tomatoes that he grows, the Black Krim is one of his favorites.

Black Krim tomatoes, which hail from the island of Krim, in the Black Sea, are chocolate colored. It is a color that seldom fails to throw the uninitiated for a loop. "They will go for big, bright red beefsteaks every time," says Stowell. But if you can get shoppers to sample the odd-looking tomatoes, Black Krims sell themselves, he says. "From then on, it’s repeat business and word of mouth."

One of Stowell’s other favorites is the Brandywine, whose lineage has been traced back more than a century through generations of Amish farmers in the East. He also is fond of the Big Rainbow, which has very low acidity, few seeds and gargantuan 2- to 3-pound fruit. Among the cherry tomatoes, Stowell’s favorite is Sungold, which is 25 percent higher in sugar than others and tastes, he reports, like a mango.

Ed Munak, who farms near Paso Robles and sells at markets from San Luis Obispo to Santa Monica, tested a dozen heirloom tomatoes several years ago and settled on five that he considered best. A Russian variety that he tried, called Russian Red, failed the test. The varieties that he kept are the Tangerine, an orange-colored tomato shaped like a Tangerine; the Sausage tomato, an elongated plum variety; the Pineapple, which has variegated orange and red meat; an oddly hewed cherry tomato called the White Wonder; and the Brandywine. Munak also grows the Celebrity, his one concession to the miracle of hybridizing. It is a disease-resistant product of a breeding laboratory that stands its ground in taste tests but lacks the open-pollinated heirloom varieties’ horticultural drawbacks.

Untold dozens of varieties of tomatoes are grown for farmers markets in Southern California. Mark Sheridan, manager of the markets in Santa Barbara County, said that at the height of tomato season last year, he counted 40 different types.

The Brandywine is the one heirloom that has broken out of the pack. Besides old-fashioned real tomato flavor, it has several other things going for it. Brandywines, big beefstake-style tomatoes with a distinctive pink tint, are not so weird-looking that shoppers have to be convinced that they are in fact healthy tomatoes. 

The Brandywine has also enjoyed an unprecedented good press. "We’ve had the Brandywine for a long time," says Arllys Adelmann, office manager of Seed Savers Exchange. "But it took off after it was written up in Organic Gardening magazine." The press accounts never fail to recount a colorful tale about their reputed Amish origins, though some authorities, such as William Woys Weaver in his new book, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, now cast doubt on that story.

The Santa Barbara Heirloom Nursery, which sells seedlings in the early part of the summer and tomatoes from mid-summer on, also counts Brandywines among the best sellers of the 34 varieties it offers. They have good flavor, are quite big and slice well, says an employee at the nursery. Another favorite: the Green Zebra, a tomato that overcomes the fact that it is still an unsettling yellow-green color even when it is perfectly ripe, perhaps because it is blessed with an intriguing name.

Heirlooms Tough to Grow for Profit

Some farmers apparently have learned that bringing tasty heirloom tomatoes to farmers markets doesn’t pay off.

Sheridan says a number of growers he knows have tried heirlooms but are dropping them because they are less reliable and have lower yields than modern hybrids. Moreover, they usually take their time in bearing fruit. And "if you can’t come in early, you can’t get a premium price," says Sheridan. By the time the Black Krims and the Big Rainbows reach farmers markets, they’re full of high-yielding, tasty hybrids like the Celebrity.

"It would be nice if interest in heirlooms would last, because the taste is there," says Sheridan. "But customers want that low price.

"I’m calling it a fad," Sheridan concludes.

In defense of heirlooms, Stowell says he doesn’t agree that they can’t compete on production. It’s just that exotic tomatoes require exotic treatment. His trick: spraying the foliage with kelp and bat guano.

Munak also speaks up for heirlooms. He says the varieties he grows can be just about as productive as his Celebrities, if conditions are right. But he acknowledges that besides taking longer to reach harvest, they need constant tending. The vines tend to run wild, growing a huge mass of foliage that has to be heavily staked, and even then, regularly breaks the strings used to tie it up. Munak also conceded that heirloom varieties need somewhat cooler weather, which in mid-summer is in short supply on the Munak Ranch, 30 miles inland in San Luis Obispo County. A hot sun causes them to split. As a result, there is usually a lull in tomato production in the middle of the season, although production picks back up in the fall and can run almost until the end of the year if the weather holds up. In the meantime, the hot days make for tomatoes with very high sugar content, says Munak.

The heirlooms don’t tolerate much abuse, which is yet another disadvantage. "They’re very tender," says Munak. "That’s probably why they’re so good."

Tomatoes for the Fog-Bound

Farmers in cold, foggy regions who want to try to defy the climatic odds and grow tomatoes should take a hint from Deborah Connell, of Cat Walk Garden in Fairfax: Grow Stupice tomatoes.

The Stupice "is great in fog," Connell said last summer at the Point Reyes Station farmers market, which reopens this year in May. An extremely cold-tolerant, hardy variety from the Czech Republic, it produces small fruit that ripen early. Connell’s sales pitch apparently worked with shoppers in the often fog-shrouded coastal town where she sells tomato seedlings and later in the summer, tomatoes themselves. The Stupice seedlings often sold out.

Two other good bets for the fog belt are Green Grape and Green Zebra tomatoes. The Green Grape is a "two-bite" cherry tomato, Connell says. Both produce small fruit that ripen when they’re green.

For tomato growers in warmer settings, Connell has two other suggestions. Both have heirloom eating qualities but without an heirloom’s horticultural shortcomings.

A variety she calls Tanya’s Best comes from seeds she saved from her fields of mixed varieties of tomatoes. Of uncertain lineage, it appears to be a cross between a Russian tomato called Bull’s Heart and an old variety called Brandywine.

The Brandywine is a favorite among heirloom-tomato aficionados, with a lineage that has been traced back more than 100 years. But like many older varieties, it is prone to cracking. Enter a commercial variety called the Rutgers, which was crossed with the Brandywine to produce another of Connell’s favorite varieties, the Red Rose, a dark-pink, disease- and crack-resistant tomato with the flavor and texture of its 19th Century parent.

 


Copyright 2005 Seasonal Chef