If you have been to the farmers’ market in the past few weeks, you have likely been drawn to the colorful displays of heirloom tomatoes. Red, purple, yellow, green, orange, pink – it’s a rainbow! Why are there so many colors and what exactly is an heirloom tomato?
Heirloom is a term used to describe any tomato plant that is openly pollinated by wind or bees and that has been growing for more than 50 years. The seeds have been passed down for generations due to their rich flavors and unique colors, shapes and sizes. Heirlooms have tender skin and an almost-perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. They are also full of vitamins A and C, fiber and minerals that support bone and cardiovascular health.
To understand why heirlooms have a different flavor than hybrids, you have to look at the plant. The more foliage a plant has in relation to its fruit, the better the flavor. Sugar and acid are made in the leaves so a large number of leaves means an abundance of both acid and sugar. Heirlooms yield fewer tomatoes per plant than hybrids, meaning that there is a better ratio of leaves per fruit on each plant. This is one of the reasons you may notice a taste difference between heirloom and hybrid tomatoes.
Each heirloom tomato tells a story. From its bumpy exterior full of deep cracks to it’s luscious, marbled interior, these tomatoes are works of art. In general, the darker the color, the more tart, and the lighter the color, the more sweet. Not sure what tomato to pick? Ask your farmer! Explain what you plan to cook and they can provide you with a recommendation.
Heirloom tomatoes are regional so you may see different varieties depending where your summer travels take you around the state, country or globe. Varieties you will see at the Durham Farmers’ Market include Cherokee Purple, Indigo Apple, Beefsteak, Carneros Pink, Red Zebra, Striped Cavern, Sweet Solano, Pineapple and Green Zebra.
Join us to celebrate the bounty of the summer season and to sample dozens of varieties of heirlooms at our Tomato Day celebration on Wednesday, July 11 from 3-5 pm and Saturday, July 14 from 9-11 am. We hope to see you there and that you continue to experiment with different heirloom varieties with your cooking this summer.