Once upon a time there was a garden that grew each summer and produced red juicy Tomatoes that were sweet and flavourful. I can still remember going out to the garden to pick those Tomatoes as my mom was preparing salad to go with dinner. They were warm from the sun and smelled of vines. Those Tomatoes were good enough to eat plain with just a sprinkle of salt and dash of pepper. After eating far too many mediocre, mealy and flavourless tomatoes in the intervening years, I sometimes ask myself: Were those Tomatoes for real? Or did they only exist in my imagination?
A basket of tomatoes, September 2009
I’ve had fleeting encounters with Tomatoes again from time to time (as opposed to small ‘t’ tomatoes, the mediocre tasteless fruit of which I’ve had too many). A trip to Napa, California in 1999 led us to Michael Chiarello’s restaurant, Tra Vigne. It was early September and tomatoes were at their peak. The menu featured them heavily so we ordered a simple caprese salad and an heirloom tomato mini pizza. A good caprese salad is all about the ingredients so everything has to be top notch: high quality mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, good olive oil, sea salt and of course, the very best Tomatoes you can find. The Tra Vigne caprese was flawless. The restaurant made their own olive oil and mozzarella and the Tomatoes had the advantage of California’s climate to ripen them to perfection.
Now and again I would encounter a Tomato again but was particularly hopeful that a trip to Italy would provide a cornucopia of perfect Tomatoes. After all, don’t Tomatoes and Italy go hand in hand? Aside from the fact that tomatoes actually came to Italy from the New World, we were traveling in the Tuscan region which isn’t the epicenter of tomato based Italian cooking. However, one day in Florence, I ordered a simple bruschetta with lunch. On two pieces of toasted Tuscan bread were chopped ripe tomatoes and a drizzle of local olive. I took a bite and there it was: that elusive fresh Tomato flavour that I had been seeking for so long.
Bushels of tomatoes at a roadside stand in the Niagara region
Upon my return to Canada, I visited farmer’s markets and roadside stands in my quest to find delicious Tomatoes. I was always hopeful but all too often even red, ripe specimens yielded no flavour and even worse texture. Occasionally I would find ones that were pretty good and they weren’t always the ones you’d think. Just because a tomato has an odd shape or strange colour doesn’t mean it has no flavour. Likewise, perfect looking tomatoes can be awful. Luckily, heirloom tomato varieties have seen a surge in popularity over the past few years and the quality is often remarkably high. Heirlooms are tomatoes that have been grown from seeds passed down through generations. I have tried to grow my own but due to lack of space, a shady property and devilish raccoons that foil all attempts at growing anything edible, I’ve given up and now rely on the farmer’s markets.
Roasted cherry tomatoes
Admittedly, 2009 was a poor year to embark on a quest to find the perfect Tomato. The weather in Eastern Canada was unseasonably cold and wet for most of the summer which is not the ideal environment for tomato growing. Most tomato varieties require hot, dry weather and lots of sun so clearly this wasn’t going to be a banner year. However, I held out hope of finding something more acceptable than tasteless watery tomatoes that are no better than what’s available in January supermarkets. I visited farmer’s markets and asked farmers their opinions about which ones tasted the best. I bought heirlooms in various colours, cherry, grape and plum tomatoes, basic field tomatoes and strange looking cluster tomatoes. Then I cut them up, sprinkled them with a bit of salt and subjected my poor husband to a blind tasting. The results were as follows (I’ve used somewhat generic terms to describe the types of tomatoes I tasted – there are hundreds of specific cultivars):
From left: coloured heirloom tomatoes, cluster tomato, Campari cocktail tomato, plum tomato, field tomato
Field Tomatoes – Generally pretty poor overall, with pale colour, little taste and mealy texture.
Plum (Roma) Tomatoes – Plum or Roma tomatoes are typically a bit drier than field tomatoes but I also found them lacking in flavour. However, cooked into sauce and seasoned they were still pretty good. Roasting will also enhance their sweetness.
Heirlooms – These come in a variety of colours and even patterns such as green and yellow zebra stripes. Overall they were pretty good – sweet and flavourful and with tender, moist flesh.
Cluster Tomatoes – These were some of the best I found. They were bright red, meaty and full of flavour. When I returned to the market the following week, I mentioned to the farmer how much I enjoyed them and he threw in a couple for free which was very nice of him.
A cluster tomato
Cherry Tomatoes – These were also quite good. Small and sweet, they were my tomato of choice this summer. When roasted, they get even sweeter as their juices concentrate. They’re also great for salads because you don’t have to fuss – just toss them in whole or simply cut them in half.
Greenhouse Grown Cocktail Tomatoes – For comparative purposes, I threw some Campari cocktail tomatoes that were greenhouse-grown into the mix. To my surprise, they compared very favourably to the summer varieties. This is good news for the 10 months of the year when fresh field grown tomatoes aren’t available where I live.
Colourful heirloom tomatoes at the farmer's market
So overall, it was a bit of a mixed bag and I didn’t find the elusive Tomato of my youth but I will continue my search next year. Cherry tomatoes and heirlooms were the most consistent overall and the cluster tomatoes were also pretty good (although they can be a bit harder to find). Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a ton of tomatoes to deal with so I’m off to make sauce….
UPDATE: Will I ever find a ‘perfect’ tomato? Visit Part 2 of my search to find out!
Check out some of my tomato recipes, including a few for roasted and cooked tomatoes which can be made year round:
Crab and Avocado Stuffed Tomatoes
Roasted Cherry Tomato Pasta
Winter Caprese Salad
Heirloom Tomato Salad with Goat Cheese and Sherry Vinaigrette
Slow Roasted Tomatoes
How to Peel Tomatoes
Tomato Tart with Herbed Ricotta
Caprese Salad 101
Corn and Tomato Salad with Basil Vinaigrette
A cocktail tomato stuffed with fresh mozzarella and a basil leaf