When most people hear the word “heirloom”, the image that comes to mind is of some ancient family relic, passed down and preserved intact from generation to generation. It implies something precious, something that carries with it the history of all those who have had a hand in its upkeep – heirloom tomatoes are exactly that, just a lot tastier. Over the years, many tomatoes have been bred to be a consistent size, shape, color, and even weight. While this has made for tomatoes that always look lovely and uniform on a grocery store shelf, that prettied-up exterior often hides a bland, mealy interior with all the tomato flavor of wet socks. Too long have our caprese salads and our tomato-topped burgers been stuck in this tomato purgatory, we say no more!
The real difference between heirloom tomatoes and conventional tomatoes goes down to the genetic level; basically, it all starts with the seeds. Heirloom tomato seeds are saved with each harvest. By doing this, the farmer can select specific qualities of the plant they would like to preserve and weed out qualities that are not so pleasant. Oftentimes, these seeds are passed down through the generations, resulting in tomatoes that carry with them the best qualities of tomatoes past. This practice has helped to create an almost overwhelming diversity of heirloom tomato varieties, though unfortunately many have been lost through the years as well. Another factor in the heirloom-ification of tomatoes is how the plants are actually pollinated. Commercial tomato-growing operations often rely on technology to pollinate their plants, resulting in tomatoes that will develop predictably into the desired size and shape for selling. Heirlooms, on the other hand, require open pollination! Open pollination can come from bees, other insects, human hands, or nothing more than a breeze, but the result is profound; instead of hundreds of identical tomatoes, you get tomatoes that are entirely unique, sometimes to the point that they can be considered a new breed! It’s this diversity that gives heirloom tomatoes their special spark and keeps us coming back for more every summer.
Picking & Storing Heirlooms
Choosing an heirloom tomato is only slightly more complicated than choosing a conventional tomato, which is to say it’s not difficult at all. First look at the skin – a good heirloom will have skin that’s shiny and taut with no splits. Wrinkles in the skin indicate a tomato that’s gone past peak ripeness, but don’t worry – overripe tomatoes are still good for cooking, particularly for grilling and throwing into salsas. Next, you may be tempted to go around giving the heirlooms a squeeze, but like any precious heirloom, heirloom tomatoes are delicate and prone to damage. Skip the squeeze and give them a sniff instead, a ripe heirloom with a have a distinctly sweet and earthy scent to it. To keep your precious heirlooms in peak condition at home, keep them out of the fridge completely and instead opt for a spot that’s cool without being cold and out of the sun. Give your heirlooms some space to keep them from bruising accidentally, and store them stem side-up for maximum freshness.
Each variety of heirloom tomatoes offers something slightly different in flavor and each will shine brightest in a certain kind of preparation. Whether it’s more acidity, more sugar, or a color that just can’t be beat, there’s an heirloom tomato variety to suit every dish and pallet. This week at Oliver’s, we’re happy to be offering locally-grown organic heirloom tomatoes at just $2.99 a pound – our friends at Live Oak Farm (Petaluma), Windrift Farm (Petaluma), All Star Organics (Marin and Sonoma County), and Russian River Organics (Healdsburg) have combed through their tomato vines to find the best of the best tomatoes they have to offer. Here are just a few of the varieties you can expect to see in the mix!
Brandywines (Red, Black, Pink, & Yellow)
These tomatoes set the industry standard for heirlooms, and it’s no wonder, considering their seeds go all the way back to 1885. The fruits grow in clusters of one and two and ripen late, but they are well worth the wait. Ripe Brandywines feature a fine, sweet flavor that translates perfectly to fresh or cooked dishes equally.
Taking their name from the Native American tribe with whom they’re thought to originate, Cherokee Purples are actually more of a dusky pink color. The interior is a deep red, and the flesh is sweet and firm – perfect for slicing! These babies are best prepared simply so their flavor and color can really shine.
Berkeley Tie Dye
Now that’s one groovy tomato! If a beefsteak tomato got tie-dyed, it would become the Berkeley Tie Dye Tomato. The outside is covered in funky green and red stripes, but the beauty of this tomato is more than just skin deep – the inside is green and red too! This tomato boasts a high acid content, making it the perfect psychedelic compliment to a BLT or a caprese salad!
This tomato’s on FIRE. Well, not really, but the flavor is! German Stripes live up to their name with gorgeous orange, yellow, and red marbling throughout. Their fruity flavor and smooth, supple texture make them the perfect tomato for salads, tarts, and even sauce.
We give a resounding “ausgezeichnet” to the German Johnson Tomato! This breed of tomatoes has spawned many a delicious genetic derivative, but the originals are still the best, in our not-so-humble opinion. These tomatoes are positively packed with real, old-fashioned tomato flavor that’ll blow the pants off any conventional tomato, bar none. With a texture similar in meatiness to a beefsteak and a gorgeous pink color, German Johnsons are perfect for adding a pop of real tomato flavor to any sandwich.
Originating in Crimea along the Black Sea, these tomatoes are the black pearl of the tomato world. The Black Krim has an impressive reputation to precede it; after all, who can argue with the moniker “Most Delicious Tomato Ever”? With the Black Krim, it’s all about the flavor – sweet, earthy, and even smokey notes coalesce into a complex flavor boosted by its light acidity and an innate mild saltiness. This tomato is definitely one to enjoy as simply as possible, just a little olive oil is all you need!
We’ve struck gold with these tomatoes! Meaty and mild, Gold Boy’s are great working tomatoes with a color that really pops. Use it anywhere you would use a beefsteak tomato to add plenty of golden color and rich tomato flavor.
Who needs pineapples when there are pineapple tomatoes? Shot through with bright orange and red, these gems have a bright and fruity flavor to match their bright and fruity appearance. Pineapple tomatoes have a light, citrusy taste that makes them the ideal tomato for eating raw.
One of the few true yellow tomatoes (most are actually a shade of orange), these striped beauties are some of our favorites. Pork Chops are particularly low in acid with a very mild flavor, making them a great sensitive-stomach-friendly tomato option. Enjoy simply with fresh cheeses, or cook them up for creative and beautiful tomato dishes.
Savory with a hint of sweetness, the Marmande is the crème de la crème beefsteak tomatoes. Dating back to the 1890’s, Marmandes are light in seeds but rich in flavor, and they’re still considered a delicacy in their native home of Marmande, France. These ultimate beefy tomatoes are the perfect choice for salsas, sauces, and sandwiches alike.
We’ve found the rainbow connection with the Big Rainbow tomato! Big Rainbows boast big color that’s contrary to their delicate, sweet, and fruity flavor. These tomatoes tend to be firm and juicy, making them perfect for a funky tomato salad or other fresh preparations.