Monday, November 8, 2010

End of Season Tomato Review (Season 2: Heirloom Smackdown)

The first hard frost settled over the garden about two weeks ago, spelling the end of my second season of growing tomatoes in earnest.

This season I set up the grand "heirloom smackdown": old vs. new, industrial food chain vs. the old standbys of yesteryear. Okay, so what I meant to test was this: Are heirloom tomatoes really worth the hype--do they really taste better? And so, in addition to various heirloom varieties, I planted Better Boy, Early Girl, and Sweet 100s. I also planted an "heirloom" variety I found at Home Depot called "Mr. Stripey," doubtless a proud tomato variety handed down from generation to generation. Not.

Though I planned elaborate blind taste tests, in the end, all that proved unnecessary, as the winners (and losers) were clear enough.

And the winner is ... Cherokee Purple. Hands down. Nothing else came close. Like last year, they didn't fruit in profusion, but produced big, fleshy, delicious tomatoes from early July through late October.

Mr. Stripey might as well have been named "Mr. Stupid" (as in what idiot would buy an heirloom tomato at Home Depot?). The plant matured late, and produced a few watery tomatoes that tasted like a bad pineapple.

Early Girl wasn't, as in 'wasn't early'. It matured later than many of my heirlooms and, when it finally did, the tomatoes it produced were forgettable.

Better Boy was quite a bit better. Lame early (the first several tasted awful), they came on stronger as the season progressed, and the ones I harvested in August and September were rather good, though still no match for the Cherokee Purple.

Another disappointment from the heirloom side came in the form of the Jaune Flamme (Yellow Flame), pictured above, a lovely French variety that produces small, round tomatoes in thick clusters that start out a bright yellow and then mature into a deep, apricot orange. I've heard they dry beautifully, and I'm sure it's true, but that's all they're good for, far as I'm concerned: lovely to look at, but ultimately a disappointment as they taste rather bland and uninteresting.

One pleasant surprise on the industrialized side came in the form of the widely available cherry tomato called Super Sweets or Super Sweet 100s. These little gems produced like crazy and blew the socks off of my heirloom variety, the Chadwick Cherry, in terms of flavor. Small fruit, but intensely flavored. Like last year, my Chadwick's were big and beautiful (for a cherry tomato), but relatively bland: neither as sweet nor acidic as the Super Sweets.

Lastly--and I'm not ashamed to admit this--I tried growing my favorite store bought variety, the Campari, from seeds I saved from a tomato I bought at Costco. The only variety worth buying and eating through the winter, I thought they might taste even better fresh, but these hybrid seeds didn't hold 'true,' so the vast majority of tomatoes this plant produces proved small, tough, and inedible.

And that, alas, is the tomato wrap ... at least for this year. Bring on the months of tasteless tomatoes and ice berg lettuce. I can bear it. Maybe.