Heirloom tomatoes are a multicolored phenomenon
Botanical sex is inevitable in a densely planted patch of heirloom tomatoes, and bizarre crossbred progeny sometimes appear, revealing themselves with never-before-seen fruits.
Occasionally, giants materialize. They begin as pea-sized nubs in midspring, then grow and grow as the vines climb toward the sky. Lesser tomatoes nearby assume their size and shape, destined for the market at a quarter pound—perhaps 12 ounces or a pound—but the big ones eventually weigh in at several pounds.
The largest that Winters farmer Ed George has harvested weighed 4 pounds—a $12 tomato at the going rate.
The pineapple tomato consistently produces the biggest fruits, but George, who grows 21 acres of 80 tomato varieties at The Peach Farm in Winters and sells them at the Saturday farmers’ market in Davis, favors the Cherokee purple, a tomato full-flavored, rich and slightly smoky-tasting. Other favorites include the beefsteak, the brandywine and the Copia.
A glance at his sales sheet, displayed overhead at the market, reveals an array of names as colorful as the fruits themselves: persimmon, Kellogg’s breakfast, mortgage lifter, vintage wine, old German, Mr. Stripey and a multitude more. All will soon be appearing at the Saturday Davis Farmers Market and will be available through the summer and fall at his stall.
George always samples his tomatoes, bizarre or otherwise, and some are quite good. In his lifetime of farming, George has isolated two dozen such volunteers that bore promising virtues. He even gave them names, calling one “Donnalicious,” after an old girlfriend. Another he called the “Mariah smile,” after his daughter. He has named a handful after local chefs—good trick for winning a permanent sales account, he says slyly.
Still, many new tomatoes prove in the end to be duds, and just one has remained a farm staple: the hippie zebra, a multicolored, tie-dyed fruit.
After months of eating pithy Romas from Mexico, buyers go mad for local summer heirloom tomatoes. In fact, says George, the very workings of society can be observed in the ebb and flow of tomato sales.
Summer break brings the kids home from college, he explains—and everyone by this time is ravenous for fresh tomatoes. So, in June and July, family dinners become grand occasions again, and sliced tomatoes appear on burgers and in colorful summer salads. For a while, life is beautiful—until the novelty of the kids and their constant appetites, summer gatherings and even tomatoes in general wears off. The July potlucks tail away. Tomato sales slump. Eventually, for George and most other tomato farmers, harvest halts entirely in late November. The sun goes down, summer goes to Chile, and it’s all gloom, gray and potatoes until the spring.
In Sacramento, at the market downtown under the freeway on Sundays, tomato hunters might poke their noses into the stall of Madison Growers, based in Esparto. Owned by Nick and Jane Atallah, the farm produces a dozen varieties of heirlooms. Unlike most farmers, the Atallahs cultivate their spray-free vines in greenhouses, which means they can plant as early as November and harvest as early as March.
“We have tomatoes before anyone else. We have no competition that way,” says Nick, originally from Lebanon.
But the summer flood of tomatoes is now arriving, burying market stands under the rainbow shades of sun-soaked fruit. Many consumers may prefers slicing tomatoes onto meat sandwiches, or cubing them into lavish salads, or stuffing them with crab and smoking them on the grill. But to Ed George, the grandest yet simplest expression of a tomato’s juicy luster may be the traditional Caprese salad:
“Just a few slices of tomato, some basil, a few drops of olive oil and some fresh mozzarella,” he says. “That’s one of my favorite things.”