My Love Affair with Tomatoes

This month’s installment for Stacey Fokas’ Freshalicious:

There, it’s out in the open now…. I love tomatoes!  If I were only allowed one vegetable (okay, technically, it’s a fruit), it would be the glorious tomato.  What’s not to love?

If you are only familiar with markettomatoesthe hard, barely ripe red things you buy at the grocery store  – which have often travelled several hundred miles – I don’t blame you for your scepticism.  Even the local greenhouse tomatoes that show up in stores in late winter still lack the substance to satisfy my flavour craving….which is why I refuse to buy tomatoes in the winter months.

But come late July, when my heirloom tomatoes start to ripen up, there is nothing more satisfying that picking a sun-warmed tomato and popping it in your mouth.  Having seeds or juice squirt out are a small consolation to pay for the explosion of flavour.

You’ll notice I said “heirloom” tomatoes.    These are plants whose seeds have been passed down from generation to generation.  The diversity is enormous, with colours ranging from yellow to rose, from pink to striped green, to mottled orange, to dark purple, in addition to all the shades of red.  Size-wise, there are the tiny Hahm’s Gelbe, reaching only 8″ tall, but with a bounty of yellow cherry-type tomatoes, up to the huge Sicilian Saucer, whose vine grows to a height of six to eight feet, and has fruit the size of a small breakfast plate!  I grew some two years ago, and needed two hands to pick them off the vine!

Low-acid, early Taxi

Low-acid, early Taxi

And then there are all the varieties of flavour.  For those who want a low-acid tomato, one of my favourite varieties is Taxi.  Not only is it less acidic, it is one of the earlier-maturing varieties.  Do you like a nice zingy taste?  How about Brandywine, which comes in orange and red?  Juicy tomatoes that drip down your chin?  Hillbilly!  And for a meaty flesh suitable for canning and making tomato paste, my two favourites are Amish Paste and San Marzano.

Yet another difference between these heirloom types and standard hybrid tomatoes are that many of the heirlooms are indeterminate growers.  These will continue growing and setting fruit until they

The tomatoes on the outside rows reached a height of over 6 feet!

The tomatoes on the outside rows reached a height of over 6 feet!

are killed off by frost.  Because of this continual growth, they will need support, as sometimes they can grow to over 7 feet high!  There are also bush varieties , known as “determinate”.  These may or may not require a cage or staking, depending on their size.  As the name implies, their growth is determinate, with a finite amount of fruit set.  I grow both types in our gardens.

A renewed interested in vegetable gardening and self-sufficiency (yay!) means that these heirloom tomatoes are making a comeback, too.  At this time of the year, you can find plants for sale at many of your local farmers’ market.  Some garden centres are now offering heirloom varieties, too. These gems have been seeded and transplanted (probably a couple of times), and are ready for planting when all danger of frost has passed.  Be sure to ask about whether the plants have been “hardened off”.  All plants which have been started indoors need to gradually get acclimatized to the harsher light from the sun, the winds and the cold.  They can be set out in a sheltered shady spot for a day or two to help with this process. Try a few plants this summer, and then next February or so, you can start your own plants from seed!  You may even want to save seed from some of the tomatoes you grow this summer.  Starting with this little step, you are well on your way to eating fresh and local.

This year, I am planting 19 varieties of tomatoes, ALL of them heirloom.  Some will be ready in as many as 65 days, while some, like the paste tomatoes, will take up to an extra three weeks. This helps spread out the harvest, too.

And what is my favourite heirloom tomato?  No question, it  is Old German. The colouring is gorgeous, a marbled effect of yellow and rosy-red. The flavour has barely a hint of acid, and there’s just enough juice to dribble down your chin if you eat them like an apple. They fill the palm of my hand, and one thick slice is perfect for a summer tomato sandwich.  Mmmm, I can hardly wait!

My beautiful Old German

My beautiful Old German

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