A blue heirloom tomato?
It’s coming, says Brad Gates, a hybridizer who owns Wild Boar Farms in Suisun Valley.
“We are growing an unreal, rare, exotic gourmet collection of heirloom and future heirloom tomatoes,” it says on his website. That’s what recently drew me to visit his farm.
Redwood Barn Nursery on Fifth Street carries his tomato seedlings. I purchased two for my garden last spring: the Michael Pollan, named after the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and Pink Boar. The latter didn’t impress, but the Pollan did, yielding an unending stream of mottled green tomatoes, small and pear-like, that ripen with a yellow blush.
But blue heirlooms? Actually, you can already buy seeds through a vendor on Amazon. Better-quality blue heirlooms are probably a few years down the road, however, as hybridizers work to tease out better flavor. The color too is more of a deep purple. Gates and other hybridizers are using traditional plant breeding techniques rather than genetic modification.
It all began when a professor at Oregon State University found a single tomato with anthocyanin, the polyphenol that gives blueberries their color. That discovery set all this in motion.
Heirlooms have been a bonanza for small-time growers. They can charge a premium for their fruit. Because heirlooms are hard to grow and harder still to ship, agribusiness hasn’t really encroached in a major way. Their old-timey air and colorfulness create their appeal, as well as varied taste profiles.
Locally, the second half of August is the best time to put heirlooms on your table. The price is low because it’s well into the season. A display at Nugget Market on Covell Boulevard this past weekend featured local heirlooms for $2.79 per pound, and I spotted them for as little as $2 per pound at the Davis Farmers Market. Moreover, great basil is abundant, which is key for the popular caprese salad that also incorporates mozzarella cheese.
Diane and I don’t venerate all heirlooms in our kitchen. Many have too mild a taste for a couple that hails from New Jersey, where we had incredible red tomatoes growing up. But each year in our garden we grow several Black Krims, a prolific heirloom variety with a deep, rich taste. Next year I’ll probably try Blond Boar or Spot Yellow, two of Gates’ newly hybridized plants with more flavor than most yellow heirlooms.
Red Early Girl tomatoes are our house tomato, the way some people have a house wine. When picked ripe, they bear no resemblance to the flavorless red tomatoes offered year-round in the supermarkets. They’ve won taste tests at UCD, according to Don Shor, owner of Redwood Barn, and they make excellent sauce. A few heirlooms, like Black Cherry, also make a good marinara sauce, but the majority of heirlooms lack the robust flavor that Americans expect in a sauce.
If you do make a marinara sauce of any kind, be sure to simmer it at a very low temperature for hours. It brings a glutamate taste to the foreground, which is a sensation of full satisfaction. It also increases the sweetness.
Sometimes you’ll see slight cracks on the main body of larger heirlooms. Their skins are thin. If overwatered by the growers, they’ll crack. If the tomatoes seem to meet all the other criteria, but there’s a crack like one that runs across your windshield, buy them for a slight discount. Growers will be more than happy to unload them, but beware. They need to be eaten soon.
More likely you’ll encounter heirlooms that are too hard, if they’ve come through a distribution route that requires early picking. The color can be seductive. Just as red tomatoes picked when too unripe never develop enough flavor, heirlooms can disappoint as well. A small-time grower who sells at a farmers’ market is the best bet for full flavor, but a local grower like Terra Firma, which was selling at Nugget, can be a good bet too.
Store them on the counter—stem end down, as I mentioned in a previous column, to sustain their life span. Never put tomatoes in the refrigerator. And when you’re buying heirlooms, take note of the shoulders around the stem end. There can be waste. On Black Krims, for example, the shoulders remain green and unripe longer than the rest of the tomato.
Incidentally, if you flinched when I mentioned that hybridizers are developing new “heirloom” tomatoes, congratulations. You respect the English language.
I remember when high-end clothing retailers and Madison Avenue began branding new styles as “instant classics” and “new traditions.” But Gates the hybridizer has nothing of Madison Avenue about him. He’s a dedicated breeder and grower who scrapes to turn adequate profits on his acreage in the windy Suisun Valley, pursuing what he loves.
With our reliably sunny, dry climate and the predictability of irrigation, this region is an ideal place to grow heirloom tomatoes. Back East the heirloom crops are undependable, as heavy rains might swell up the tomatoes or introduce plant diseases.
You live in the right place for heirloom tomatoes, and now’s the season to get them for a reasonable price. Some places still sell them for $6 per pound, but expect to pay half that much. To enjoy them during the next month, start with the basic Caprese salad.
— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at [email protected]
3 large heirloom tomatoes
A ball or two of fresh mozzarella, sold in containers with water
1/4 cup, packed, of fresh Genovese basil
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt, and pepper, to taste
Putting it together:
Arrange a layer of thick tomato slices on a plate, interspersed with slices of thin-cut mozzarella and hand-shredded bits of basil leaves, plus salt and pepper. A second layer might be desirable. Drizzle with olive oil. Enjoy.
If you Google “Caprese salad image,” you’ll see a great many displays and variations of this attractive tomato salad, to inspire your presentation to guests.
* Perhaps drizzle the tomatoes with a teaspoon of high-quality balsamic vinegar, especially if the heirlooms have less flavor than you expected when you bought them. It’s why you see balsamic used so often in better restaurants in the spring, when prices are high (hence, you often get a small, chopped amount of heirlooms, with greens). Spring heirlooms are not optimal, but the restaurateurs know that their customers do not want to wait.
* Genovese basil is the popular, standard, green basil grown in Italy. It’s best fresh picked from plants in your garden or a patio container. The plants even now are sold in supermarkets, or you can buy bunches of basil. Warning: do not use basil from plants or stems that show even the beginnings of flowers. The leaves will be heading toward a bitter flavor.
* In Liguria, where basil pesto is an art form, those caring never let metal touch the leaves in processing. It’s hand tearing or, remarkably, crushing it with a mortar and pestle in order to make pesto.