Natural Beauties

Tomato aficionados like their heirlooms juicy, thin-skinned, fragile and eminently edible.

August 01, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Judy Aleksalza looks bemused as she stares at the misshapen, cracked, strangely colored tomatoes for sale at the Sunday farmers' market in downtown Baltimore. Her eyes go from their "$2 a lb." sign to the "$1 a lb." sign over the tomatoes at the other end of the stall. The latter are meaty beauties: huge, symmetrical, uniformly red and seemingly perfect in every way. But they cost half what the ugly ones do.

When she's told that the ugly ones are heirloom tomatoes that practically burst out of their thin skins with intense, juicy tomato flavor, she looks skeptical.

"I'm on a pension, and I don't want to get into a new, expensive habit," the 61-year-old Barre Circle resident explains with a laugh. Still, she passes up the other tomatoes for one each of the heirlooms: a yellow and red "Mr. Stripey" (otherwise known as Striped Marvel); a dark, blood-red Cherokee Purple with touches of green even when it's ripe; and a pinky-red Brandywine, the most popular of the hundreds of heirloom tomato varieties. She promises to report after she's sampled them.

Tender skins

Behind the counter, George Zahradka, 33, owner of Brown's Cove Farm in Essex, carefully removes the stems of Aleksalza's three tomatoes before he bags them. The skins are so fragile that he's afraid the stems will puncture them.

You can see why heirloom varieties were beginning to disappear until fairly recently. It's hard to ship tomatoes cross-country to supermarkets if the skins split easily, so hybrids were developed with thicker skins. (Hybrids are the crossbreeding of two varieties.) While the scientists were at it, they created tomatoes that were more uniform in size, shape and color. They bred in disease resistance and created more productive varieties. Along the way, unfortunately, tomatoes lost their flavor and diversity.

Zahradka doesn't specialize in gourmet produce. But once he tasted his first heirloom tomato, he liked it so much he got on the Internet to find a source for seeds.

"We grew them last year just for ourselves," he says. This year 27 of the 35 tomato varieties he's raised for sale are heirlooms. He has about 4,000 heirloom tomato plants. "They have cracking, they have no disease resistance at all, but they make up for it all with their flavor. You can't get any better."

Handed down

The definition of heirlooms isn't exact. Gardeners agree that they are open-pollinated - that is, unlike hybrids, they pollinate themselves with the help of nature, so you can save the seeds and grow the same variety year after year. Most gardeners feel they have to be at least 50 years old or handed down in a family for at least two generations.

Not all heirlooms are great and all hybrids bad (just try the hybrids Dona and Carmello if you get a chance). But in general, heirlooms have that rich tomato taste and luscious texture you remember from your childhood but thought were lost forever.

Heirloom varieties were slowly disappearing until the 1970s, when organizations like Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa began assembling a collection. Now you can find them at farmers' markets, at upscale groceries such as Eddie's and Whole Foods, on gourmet restaurant menus, and on the covers of food magazines.

Organic trend helped

"They are gaining momentum even now," says Kathy Bjerke of the Seed Savers Exchange. "People are interested in varieties that aren't cookie-cutter tomatoes. They want different colors, different shapes, different tastes."

David Baldwin, owner of the California-based Natural Gardening Co., started selling heirloom tomato seeds and plants in the late '80s. He gives a lot of credit to the organic movement for the heirloom's current popularity. "People confuse organic and heirloom," he says. (Obviously, hybrids can be grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides and heirlooms can be grown with them. But heirlooms seem more natural.)

The Natural Gardening Co. is an good source of heirloom tomato plants. Order early in the year because it sells out. You can also find a few heirloom seedlings locally - usually Brandywine - at farmers' markets and stores like Whole Foods.

Most people, though, don't want to be bothered with these troublesome plants. They prefer to pay a few dollars more and get their heirlooms at the local market. Judy Aleksalza reports that her favorite of the three tomatoes was the Striped Marvel. She plans to buy more of them for a tomato tart she'll be making for company.

"I thought it was sensational," she says. "Sweeter and less acidic than regular tomatoes. Definitely worth spending the extra pennies on."

Where to find heirlooms

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