Tomato season is upon us and that means we’re about to see our favorite fruit in a whole plethora of shades, shapes and sizes. Sure, these days you can find tomatoes at the grocery store year round. But those perfectly round, usually bland, tomatoes have been genetically modified over the years to highlight certain qualities that help make them available any season. They’re often the most affordable option, but at the sacrifice of the beloved flavor of the tomato.
Luckily, there’s a better, though more expensive, option in the knobby, misshapen tomatoes called heirlooms. Their seeds haven’t been modified from their original versions, so they’ve retained all the original flavors that nature intended. You’ll see them come in shades ranging from green to yellow to orange and even purple.
Before the season comes and goes, we wanted to get a real appreciation for what exactly an heirloom tomato is (to help us understand why it costs so much). We turned to expert gardener John Coykendall at the most magical place on earth, Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee, to fill us in on the heirloom tomato. He was gracious enough to give us his time and to explain to us why these beauties are so downright special.
1. Heirloom tomatoes taste how real tomatoes are supposed to taste.
“What we’re growing today, I would hardly classify as a real tomato. I suppose they’re alive, but the resemblance stops there. We had it right 100 years ago,” shared Coykendall.
“One thing is, you get all the subtle differences in heirlooms [that you don’t get in the other tomatoes]. Your yellow heirloom tomatoes are milder. And your red heirlooms have a lot more acidic quality,” Coykendall elaborated.
The only problem with heirlooms is that you can’t buy them year round, but Coykendall says if you have a craving for one mid-winter, you’re better off buying canned tomatoes than the ones they try to pass off as “real” tomatoes at the grocery store.
2. Heirloom tomatoes are works of art.
“They’re so beautiful. Some of them are solid yellow, some have pink mottling to them. There’s one called Mr. Stripey. All of those sliced up together aesthetically speaking make a statement on the plate. They speak for themselves. People always ask when I give a talk if I make notes. And I say I don’t have to. If I have beans in front of me on the table each one of them has their own story — and it’s the same with the heirloom tomatoes,” explained Coykendall.
And there’s no denying this fact. Just a walk through the farmer’s market and the rainbow of colors that make up the tomato palette makes this point all too clear.
3. An heirloom has to be at least 50 years old.
“The rule of thumb for any kind of heirloom in the seed world is that something has to be at least 50 years old to be an heirloom. Or it has to be associated with an area, a farm or specific family,” Coykendall said.
Unlike organic, there is no official seal for heirloom varieties. The best way to know if you’re getting an heirloom is to take a bite out of it.
“The way of knowing is the taste test. Once you get home and taste it you know you got the real thing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an heirloom tomato faked, it either is or it isn’t,” explained Coykendall.
And heirlooms haven’t been bred to be disease resistant like many of today’s tomato plants have, which makes them harder to grow. And that challenge adds to their cost.
By buying heirloom tomatoes, you’re not only getting a great tasting tomato, but you’re supporting the efforts to help heirlooms survive and thrive throughout the ages. The challenges of growing them, the heritage they contain, the taste and their beauty are all the reasons they cost so much ― and all reasons they’re worth every penny.