Late-summer sun dapples the table as we sit down to taste, judge, and celebrate America's favorite garden treat: the tomato. The view of pond and fields from the terrace of this 1788 farmhouse in Rhinebeck, New York, is splendid, but all eyes are focused on our mission. We are six: heirloom-vegetable guru Amy Goldman (our host), Martha, Pennsylvania tomato grower Tim Stark, chef Michael Anthony of New York's Gramercy Tavern, Hudson Valley restaurateur Laura Pensiero, and me, a farmer from Maine.
Charred Tomatoes on Rustic Bread
Cherry Tomatoes Wrapped in Prosciutto with Olives
Tomato Wedges with Flaked Sea Salt, Pepper, and Chilled Vodka
Heirloom Tomato, White Peach, and Ricotta Salata Salad
Tim and Amy have assembled close to 30 beauties from their own plots for us to sample. Displayed on white platters, their colors and shapes stray far from the classic round red globe. Huge yellow fruits of 'Big Rainbow,' flamed with red, dwarf the pea-size 'Alberto Shatters,' a "currant" type. Some are nearly black, others bright green. We admire the gorgeous orange streaks on 'Casady's Folly' and marvel at the fuzzy skin of 'Yellow Peach.' 'Reisetomate,' called a pocketbook or traveler tomato, has deeply indented lobes that can be plucked like grapes. Most are historical varieties, handed down within families and saved from extinction by gardeners, collectors, and preservationists, or improved by dedicated breeders.
After the oohs and aahs, it's eatability we're after. For an hour we taste, taking notes on subtleties of flavor and texture. Conversation is lively as growers and cooks share impressions. Tim notes that 'Green Giant' is the earliest to ripen. "When it first comes in it's amazing, but after rain, not so good," he says. "It would make a great fried-green-tomato BLT," Laura says. "I did a reverse BLT with red lettuce and green tomato," Martha says with a laugh. She is trying slices with oil, salt, pepper, or sugar to see how these affect flavor. Amy tells tomato stories -- how a cousin brought Italian San Marzano tomatoes to California, a tale of commerce and illicit love.
We concentrate, starting with the mild-flavored beefsteaks and moving on to meaty paste tomatoes and high-sugar cherry types. As favorites emerge, sweetness wins out only when balanced with acidity. We go for the tang of 'Green Zebra,' the melony overtones of 'Big Rainbow,' and the complexity of 'Jaune Flamme.' "Tropical notes," says Laura, who would serve it caramelized with delicate fish. "It sings," says Michael, who could see it in a tomato tart.
Martha loves the flower shape that 'Goldman's Italian American' makes when cut, and its "seductive, smooth texture." But we also like tomatoes with crunch, such as 'Sapho,' a little modern hybrid I've brought from home, firm enough to take a plane trip, nested in an egg box.
Three tiny currant varieties, 'Alberto Shatters,' 'Sara's Galapagos,' and 'Matt's Wild Cherry,' make it into our favorites. These are primitive tomatoes with untidy traits. Their rambling stems bear fragile fruits that drop on the ground and go to seed. But their flavor is the essence of tomatoness, a happy trade-off. For gardeners who grow heirlooms, diversity and deliciousness trump convenience and predictability. Besides, these treasures are open-pollinated, which means you can save the seeds and grow them again, give them to friends, and even develop your own strain that's adapted to your climate and soil.
Some can be found in catalogs such as Sand Hill Preservation Center, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Johnny's Selected Seeds, and Seed Savers Exchange. Better yet, join the Seed Savers network of swappers and choose from nearly 5,000 tomato varieties to grow, taste, and savor on a golden summer day.