Blue Tomatoes and Other Weird Heirlooms
The rich array of tomatoes you find at today’s farmers’ markets and roadside stands stems from an interest in tried-and-true heirloom varieties and their exotic offspring. We explore the rainbow of colors and flavors to look out for.
The Flavor of Summer
The first vine-ripened tomatoes have us wishing summer would never end. Tomatoes require a long stretch of warm, sunny weather to reach their peak, because they are, botanically speaking, subtropical berries: The fruit originated in South America and was first cultivated in Mexico and Central America. After the Spanish brought them to Europe in the 1500s, tomatoes gradually became a food crop there, then made their way back to the New World before the Revolutionary War.
True to Seed
Throughout the centuries, farmers, connoisseurs, and home gardeners have regarded tomatoes as an edible status symbol, selecting and breeding the “heirloom” cultivars, which reproduce true to type from seed down through the years. The tradition continues, thanks to the efforts of breeders like Brad Gates, who sent us the beauties above and here. At Wild Boar Farms, in Napa Valley, California, he uses seeds he’s saved from accidental heirloom crossbreeds to develop new striped and bicolor varieties that are a world apart from what we usually think of as modern tomatoes — which are bred for long-distance shipping, not flavor. “Tomatoes that are green when ripe have a spicy, almost grassy flavor,” he explains. “Yellow and orange ones are typically sweeter and less acidic.”
Gates and friends also breed blue cultivars — the hottest thing going in the tomato world — from recently isolated wild-tomato genes that trigger the production of anthocyanin, the antioxidant found in blueberries. “The color draws people in, but we’ve worked to develop good flavor in them,” he says. “And they have great disease- and sun-tolerance, which I believe is from their wild lineage.” What’s old is new again.
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