Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What is an Heirloom Tomato?

In a good way, heirloom tomatoes seem to be the rage today, don't they? I happen to be in San Francisco during the last weekend for the San Fran Chef's Heirloom Tomato Week. And while we didn't actually dine at any of the participating restaurants, we did have heirloom tomatoes for several meals.

Our first evening in San Fran, we took a ferry (as a side, the Ferry Building is just amazing! I missed the farmer's market because I thought it ran all weekend not just Saturday, but I can only imagine that it is amazing. A must visit when in San Fran) to Tiburon to visit some friends. After walking around Tiburon a bit, touring the fire station (our friend is a volunteer firefighter - how cool is that??), and relaxing in their home, they took us to Bungalow 44 in nearby Mill Valley. So good. So, so good.
One of the appetizers we shared was a heirloom tomato flat bread dish. While eating, someone asked, "What makes a tomato and heirloom?" And guess what? I didn't really know! I know heirloom tomatoes are "good" and even have an heirloom variety growing in my tomato pots at home. I knew that regular tomatoes at the grocery store are grown for their consistent size and shape, their ability to travel well, their disease resistance, but NOT for their taste (and apparently, as I learned, not for their nutritional value either). I knew that heirloom tomatoes taste better, are often funny shapes and colors, and that the seeds are often passed down through generations, but I didn't really know the true definition of an heirloom tomato.

Apparently defining an heirloom tomato isn't an easy thing. Most varieties are "old"... 50, 100, or whatever number of years, the variety has been around for a long time. They must also be open-pollinated which means pollinated by natural means - birds, bees, wind, etc. And no genetically-modified varieties are allowed in the heirloom club. With many modern, hybrid tomatoes, the plants are sterile and the seeds can not be saved to produce more tomato plants next year. The seed companies like this because you have to continue to buy seeds from them year after year after year. Not with the heirloom varieties. Seed saving and sharing is actually encouraged with the heirloom varieties.
So why are heirloom tomatoes important? Besides that they taste better and are more nutritional than commercial tomatoes, buying heirloom tomatoes supports small farms as few are grown by larger institutions and most are grown locally. Heirlooms also support biodiversity which is more and more important as commercial food production limits our choices.

In our home, I will be making a conscious effort to make sure we limit or avoid hybrid tomatoes. And even while my home garden is peaking in produce (which I am sadly missing while out of town, but one of my neighbors is enjoying!), I am already mentally planning for next year's garden. I know I'll be paying closer attention to what I choose to plant.

Reference Sites


Anonymous said...

I just read an awesome article about heirloom tomatoes in Martha Stewart Living. Let me see if I can dig it up... The coolest thing I learned was how to ferment and dry your own seeds so you can grow your own. I am dying to try this. Just need to get some good ones at the FM on Sat. I will try my sugar cherry tomatoes, too, though, because they are awesome and I've love to have them next year.

Okay, found two links for you. This is similar to what you wrote:

And this is the article I read and was inspired by:

Thanks for keeping up with the blog, Kristen. I often pass on links to my local friends. :)


Penny said...

I'm always attracted to the ones that are weird colours ;) I'm getting some seedlings this summer I hope.

Rebecca said...

We moved into a new house this year, and it was too late to plant a garden. Next year I will try to plant some heirloom tomatoes. I will admit to being seduced by hybrids in the past--especially when they boast about being bug-proof or something. I don't have much of a green thumb, and I guess I've viewed heirlooms as more delicate than hybrids. Your post has highlighted the importance of heirlooms! I also like anonymous's idea to dry the seeds for the following year.

You may be interested in joining our Thrifty Green Thursday blog carnival over at the Green Baby Guide. Hope to see you there!

Astarte said...

Moan... I tried to grow heirlooms this summer and they fizzled like wet firecrackers. Sigh. I think they were a little too sexy for my garden. :(

ames said...

Very good to know, I was wondering that myself. Looks tasty!