Friday, September 26, 2003

more on tomatoes
The incomparable Andy Griffin of Mariquita Farm:
Making sauce is easy but buying tomatoes is more complicated than it used to be. Once upon a time red tomatoes (or pinkish ones) came fresh or canned. Now a shopper is confronted with dry farmed and heirloom tomatoes in every imaginable size, shape, and flavor and packaged with divergent philosophical rave. Since 25� words like �dry farm' and �heirloom' often announce $2.50 a pound prices (or up) it can seem that you need to be a patent lawyer from Belvedere in order to eat red sauce like a slum dweller from Palermo. No matter what you do for a living a deeper understanding of tomato culture can help you judge the tomatoes you buy. For my taste the two most important tomato words, determinate and indeterminate, are the least understood or employed.

The earliest tomatoes that grew wild in the thickets of South America were rampant, vining plants that clambered over and through bushes and trees for support. The tiny-fruited red currant cherry tomato we sell is an example of a wild type. The wild tomato was/is a short-lived perennial that continuously sets flowers and fruit as long as temperatures and plant vigor permits. This habit of continuously fruiting is called indeterminacy. A determinate tomato, by comparison, grows vegetatively for a bit and then sets almost all of its fruit at one time. Nature created the indeterminate tomato so as to set seed over the broadest season and thus guarantee the survival of the species through uncertain weather patterns. Mankind developed the determinate tomato from mutant indeterminate plants. Concentrated, determinate fruit set can be a real advantage in short season growing areas or where machine harvesting is employed. Determinate tomatoes don't have to taste worse than indeterminate but I feel a concentrated fruit set results in too many tomatoes sucking nutrition from the plant at once for the flavor to be concentrated and rich. Flavor is an expression of minerals and micronutrients. When a limited supply of nutrition is split between too many fruits the flavor is bland. I grow indeterminate tomatoes....

Americans are getting used to seeing heirloom tomatoes in all colors collected from all around the world on the same table at the same time at farmers markets. Since we often taste with our eyes and not our tongues it is no surprise that the rainbow Pokemon "Gotta Catch'em All" sales approach is the dominant heirloom marketing technique. (If you don't have kids think sets of decorator plates, porcelain dolls or collectible spoons.) Since no patent lawyers are involved it's no crime for a grower to change an heirloom tomato's name in order to distinguish their product from a neighbor's. Rustic hokey names like "Aunt Ruby's German Green" tend to show off the presumed antiquity of these heirloom types but it's worth remembering that some old fashioned tomatoes are really only a few decades old. Green Zebra tomatoes, for instance, often sold as heirlooms were actually developed recently by plant hybridizer Tom Wagner. None of this matters if the tomato tastes good. I chose to grow only red tomatoes this year because spring planting found me in a retro "honest red tomato" kind of mood. Maybe next year I'll feel pink, orange, or purple in March. I like color, diversity, and preserving heirloom varieties, but mostly I like flavor.

Flavor is as much an expression of cultural practices as variety. In this respect dry-farmed tomatoes are getting all the press. With dry farming the grower plants the tomatoes to moisture. As the water table recedes the plants roots reach deep into the mineral earth. The fruit ends up smaller, the skins are tougher, but often the fruit is sweeter and richer for the minerals they've taken up and have a lower water content. Yields are lower so prices must be higher. This is how I farm my tomatoes - with one exception! Like almost all dry farm tomato growers I know I will drip irrigate young plants so that they can make it to the watertable if the weather is too hot. During crushing heat waves I will drip the plants to keep them from wilting and losing their fruit. No lawyers are out there (yet)defining "dry farm" but I feel my tomatoes are just as dry farmed as anyone elses. Over the season as the tomato roots reach more profoundly into the earth I taste the difference and watch the fruit size shrink. I get good yields, too, allowing me to sell dry farm flavor at watered down prices. The tomatoes are great now. I'm hoping we will have them through November but after October first you never know. The San Marzanos are fine for sauce but the Early Girls work too and may be preferable if you like more of a tangy bite. Check'em out while they're still here.

� 2003 Andy Griffin. Sign up for his newsletter here.

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