A Trip To The Tomato Farm

Unless this is your first time checking out the site, you have probably noticed that I have a bit of a passion for food. That passion runs both ways – not only am I generally mental about consuming the food, I am also a bit mental about the production of the non-carnivorous ingredients.

Yes, it’s true. I confess – I am a gardener.

Sadly, however, I am not one of those annoying jerks with the magical green thumb, the kind that just sort of have to look at a patch of ground to bring forth a crop of luscious plants laden with tasty goodies. Not even close. I am a bit of a hacker out there, struggling along, but I love it. Couldn’t tell you why, either, I just do.

Luckily, I generally want to grow things that are suitable for canning – tomatoes for sauces and salsas, peppers for sauces and jellies, and cucumbers for pickling – and those just happen to be things that are somewhat easy to grow. The key word there being “somewhat”. For the last two seasons either the soil or the weather or my less-than-green thumb have conspired to leave my pepper plants stunted, giving up one or two peppers at most. This year I am wimping out on that front and cutting them from the roster.

That leaves me with tomatoes and cukes. And really, if you are going to make any sort of traditional pickles and make them worth your time by making a decent-sized batch, you just aren’t going to grow enough cucumbers in your average home patch unless you turn the entire back yard into a garden. It’s easier to just go buy a couple of big baskets at the farmer’s market (or better, right at the farm) when canning time rolls around.

Which, if you are actually still reading this, means that I spent a couple of paragraphs rambling along to get to the actual point. To wit, the only thing I will have in the garden this year is tomatoes. One of these days I am going to learn to cut to the chase.

Where were we? Right, tomatoes. One of the sad parts of the modern eating experience is that many of the foods we eat are just pale shadows of their former selves. They have been bred for visual appeal to un-adventurous masses, a pristine look on the grocers’ shelves, and sturdiness for harvest and transport. Tomatoes are a prime example of this – flavour and texture have been sacrificed to produce modern hybrids, plants that bear unnaturally huge amounts of the unblemished red-orange globes that infest the supermarket and that the average shopper has come to expect. There are at least a couple of generations of people that have no idea what a tomato actually tastes like. “Kinda red, bland, and vaguely sweet” has replaced big bold colours and even bigger bold tastes.

Unless, of course, you get out there and grow them yourself. The great tomatoes of yore are still out there, un-bastardized by the demands of the mainstream supermarket mentality. The heirloom seeds have been preserved from year to year and they still taste and look as fabulous as they did twenty generations ago.

For a long time growing heirlooms meant mailing away to the Seed Savers Exchange for seeds, planting indoors in mid-winter, coaxing your babies along, re-potting to keep driving the roots deeper and deeper, hardening off your plants, and praying like mad that they wouldn’t fall prey to some sort of random death before you got them in the ground. Fortunately we live in a far more civilized world now, and while you can still start from seed (I did this myself this winter with seeds I harvested from last year) most people now have the option of buying fully-hardened and ready-to-plant heirloom tomato transplants from enterprising growers. Whether you are lucky enough to have a local vendor or you have to order your plants on-line, a world of flavour is ready for the taking. All you need to do is get a little bit dirty.

I am one of the lucky ones and live about a half hour away from the Tree And Twig Farm – a veritable buffet of old fashioned vegetables, run by a woman who is fifty percent heirloom vegetable evangelist and fifty percent personal gardening guru. And that equals one hundred percent priceless. While I am usually all for ordering online and avoiding human contact when I buy things, this is a shopping trip I am happy to make in person to avail myself of her expertise, advice, and recommendations.

When there are a few hundred varieties to chose from, you need recommendations.

I made my annual pilgrimage to the farm this weekend and came back with a nice selection of plants that I hope will cover all of the tomato bases. Early producers, full-season producers, big slicers for sandwiches, super-rich purples for salads and roasting, variety cherries and pears for sides and pastas, meaty reds for canning and salsas, I think I have them all. If you are thinking about doing some growing this summer (barbeque meat loves being paired with tomato) this will give you an idea where to start.

At the farm I bought:

Sophie’s Choice: A traditional red tomato with big taste and the earliest producer in northern climates. In most parts of Canada this will give you ripe fruit in 55 days or less.

Soldacki: An old-fashioned beefsteak, huge pink lumpy fruits with massive flavour.

Hillbilly: A repeat purchase from last year. My favourite sandwich tomato ever, huge tomatoes with golden-orange flesh and red streaks in the middle. Dazzling to look at, spectacular to eat.

Indian Moon: A throwback to the original wild tomatoes (which were generally a gold colour, as referenced in the french and italian names), tart, bold, heavy on the meat and light on the seeds and juice.

Austin’s Red Pear: A tiny pear-shaped tomato, bright red and possibly the sweetest tomato.

Dr. Carolyn: Rich and bold, which is rare in a cherry. The ripe fruit are white shading to pale yellow, and have a flavour comparable to a late-season beefsteak.

Orange Santa: An early-producer that balances typical cherry tomato sweetness with old-fashioned tomato tang.

Watermelon Beefsteak: Big (really big) pink asymmetrical fruits with a solid tang, nice and tart if you like that in a tomoato.

Japanese Oxheart: Largish heart-shaped pink tomatoes with almost no seeds. Great for quick sauces and ragouts.

Cherokee Chocolate: This is a mutation of the traditional purple cherokees – the skin is orange instead of clear, so the tomato has a dramatic brown colour with the same big flavour of the mainline cherokees.

Cinnamon Pear: I know nothing at all about this one. My tomato farm guru handed it to me and said “This is unusual”. I am a trusting soul, apparently!

Adding to those I am (hopefully) planting the varieties I grew this winter from seeds I saved last year:

Bonnie Best: Another traditional red, great for sauces and canning with a low seed content.

Black Krim: A very dark tomato, red-brown and deep green. Huge flavour and a salty tang.

Carbon: The darkest tomato I have ever seen. Blackish-purple. Massive, massive flavour, but sadly I don’t think these are going do do well. My seedlings are spindly and sad, I must have screwed these ones up something fierce.

“Carbon Red”: That is the name I am using for now, anyway. These seeds came from a lone tomato that came out bright red on one of the Carbon plants – it must have cross-pollinated with the Bonnie Best. And unlike the Carbon seedlings, these ones are totally vigorous, so who knows what I did wrong there. I have high hopes for this “new” variant and if it tastes as good as it’s black forebear, I will have to come up with a better name. Fingers crossed.

If you were thinking about dabbling in some heirloom vegetables (or just got inspired by this post) and wanted to try and start small (or you have limited space or maybe no garden at all) both the Sophie’s Choice and Black Krim plants are nice and compact and will do very well in big pots on the patio. Grow one or two of each to get ripe fruit throughout the season without having to commit to a full traditional garden plot. Or – realizing that I am a hack at this and my advice might be generally worthless – you can do what I did: Find a farmer and ask her what would be best for your tastes and space. But be warned: Once you taste a real tomato, there is no going back. It’s a quick and slippery slope from “trying it out” to “obsessed garden maniac”.

Trust me, I know.

UPDATE: So I broke down and ended up using the borders of the garden to grow other vegetables. I couldn’t resist. I have no resolve at all when it comes to curbing my gardening addiction. Dang.

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