Now that tomato-starting season is almost upon us, it’s high time I reviewed last year’s varieties. The tomatoes I’ll describe here were all grown by my friends Greg and Wendy, who kindly let me raid their garden while they were on vacation. (All I can say about the many varieties I planted myself is this: Deer like them. The darn deer ate every last fruit.) All of these varieties are open-pollinated.
Speckled Roman. Developed by John Swenson as a cross of Antique Roman with Banana Legs, this 5-inch-long tomato, with an elongated plum-tomato shape, has deep red flesh and a red skin beautifully streaked with gold. The acidity is strong, the seeds large and few, and the fruit production high. I found no hollow interiors and only a little blossom-end rot, less than in the hybrid Roma that Wendy and Greg also planted (we had a bad year for blossom-end rot). If you dry this tomato, do so when the stripes are still greenish; if they are entirely gold the fruit is too ripe. Seeds are available from Johnny’s and from Seed Savers Exchange. I will certainly plant this tomato again.
Black Vernissage. Greg liked this tomato; Wendy did not. I wavered between lust and disgust, because this golf-ball-size tomato tastes very low in acid and mealy if you eat it when it’s rust-red and green. You have to pick it sooner, when it is still pink and green. Double Helix Farms introduced this Ukrainian tomato to the United States; Totally Tomatoes and Baker Creek also sell it.
Purple Russian. Looking like a big egg with a point at the bottom, this sweet, meaty, low-acid tomato from Ukraine is useful for sauce or drying. The skin color is only slightly purplish. The tomato is best, and most acidic, when it is ripe but still quite firm. Seeds are available from Baker Creek and Totally Tomatoes.
Chocolate Stripes. This gorgeous 3-to 4-inch-wide oblate tomato looks much like Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, but the skin color is a deeper red with deeper green stripes. The flavor is excellent; I loved this tomato in salads and gazpacho. Chocolate Stripes was bred by Al Anderson, of Troy, Ohio, from Tom Wagner’s Schimmeig Creg and an unknown pink Amish tomato. Seeds are available from Baker Creek and many other seed companies.
Brandywine. Greg’s favorite, this tomato is far superior to the red Brandywine I used to grow, with its hard green shoulders, ugly navel at the blossom end, and inevitable cracks. This Brandywine is truly pink, with tiny scab-like freckles. Some of the oblate fruits on Greg and Wendy’s potato-leafed vines had the ugly navels, and occasionally an associated crack, but most of the tomatoes were well formed. They were also fairly uniform in size, about 3½ inches across, and the taste was good and tart. The skins were tender; you have to handle these tomatoes gently. Greg and Wendy’s seed came from Territorial, which has been selecting Brandywine seed for many years and claims to now have one of the earliest strains.
Craig LeHoullier has attempted to sort out the confusion of the Brandywine name at WebGrower.com.
For reviews of other tomato cultivars, see my Tomato Reports from 2014, 2012, and 2009-2011.
I first learned about watermelon’s pale-fleshed, seedy ancestor while studying traditional ways of preserving modern watermelon. Why, I wondered, do people bother to make the watermelon’s narrow inner white rind into pickles and sweet preserves when the red flesh and the seeds have much more nutritional value and flavor? Was the white layer proportionally bigger in watermelons of the past? And what is a pie melon? Did Southerners actually make pies out of a sort of watermelon?
Soon I was reading about the citron melon, the native African watermelon from which our garden varieties were developed. Citron melons grow wild in many hot places today, including the southern United States. Green Deane describes them growing in Florida citrus groves, though the melon wasn’t named for this preferred habitat.* Wild citron melons are said to be usually bland-tasting, but sometimes they’re sweet or bitter. Cultivated varieties are always bland. “Pie melons” can be citron melons or crosses between citron melons and sweet watermelons.
That much I learned from other writers, but I wanted to experience this fruit for myself. So when I found a listing for red-seeded citron melon in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog in 2011, I had to send for some seeds.
I couldn’t grow melons of any sort in the cool, short summer of 2011, but this year I did better. My single citron melon vine produced several round fruits, each no more than 7 inches in diameter and striped dark green on a pale green background. I picked the melons at the first frost of the year, in early October, and hoped that they would keep well on the cool tile floor of our entry hall while I spent the next several weeks canning and drying tomatoes, peppers, apples, and pears. Later I would try making some citron melon preserves, which are just like watermelon rind preserves except that you use all of the melon except for the hard outer rind and the seeds.
In early November one of my readers, Val, suggested that I have a look at a blog post by a writer in southern France concerning “jamming melons,” or melons d’Espagne. In Médoc, writes Mimi Thorisson, everybody makes confiture with these melons just after harvest, in early November. She suggests two variations on the basic confiture, one with vanilla and one with mandarin orange and ginger. Her recipe, I noticed, closely resembles American recipes for citron melon preserves. In her photos, the melons d’Espagne look just like my citron melons.
I consulted other French sources. Some French writers say the melons are harvested in late fall and kept in a cool place until just after Christmas, when they are made into the last preserves of the year. All the French recipes I found are much like both Mimi’s and the American recipes. If melons d’Espagne and red-seeded citron melon aren’t exactly the same variety, they must be very close.
I cut into one of the melons. Inside, it fit the French descriptions. The flesh was pale green and bland tasting. It felt slimy, like aloe. The red seeds were many, large, and hard in comparison with seeds of the sweet watermelon cultivars I know.
I worked out a recipe to suit myself. I didn’t add an apple or chop the melon in a food processor, as one French recipe specifies. This would give a jammy result, and I wanted to make preserves, that is, bite-size pieces of fruit in heavy syrup. I didn’t use the alum called for in some Southern recipes, to give the melon a brittle (and, to me, odd) texture. Instead of choosing either vanilla or orange, as Mimi suggests, I combined the two, as in other recipes.
I used half of a vanilla bean, and the flavor was overwhelming. So in the recipe that follows I call for only a quarter of a bean and offer the option of using ginger instead, as I’ll do next time. If you prefer vanilla to ginger, you might also follow another French tradition: Add a splash of dark rum at the end of cooking.
Citron Melon Preserves
For this recipe you’ll need a melon about 6 inches in diameter or else a piece of a larger melon. Cut the melon in half, and cut each half into narrow wedges. Poke or pry out all of the seeds. Peel each wedge with a knife, and then cut the wedge into ½- to ¾-inch pieces.
3 pounds prepared citron melon pieces 2 clementines 3 tablespoons lemon juice 3 cups sugar ¼ vanilla bean, split lengthwise and slivered crosswise, or 1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled, sliced thin, and slivered
Put the melon pieces into a preserving pan. Halve the clementines, squeeze out their juice, and add the clementine juice and the lemon juice to the pan. Scrape out any membranes and stringy white bits from the clementine peels, slice the peels into thin strips, and add them to the pan. Add the sugar and the vanilla bean or ginger pieces. Stir gently, cover the pan, and let the mixture rest overnight.
Set the pan over medium heat, and stir gently until the sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the mixture, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, stirring only occasionally and gently. When the preserves are ready, there will appear to be more fruit than liquid in the pan. The fruit will be partially translucent, and the syrup will form a thread when dropped into a glass of cold water.
Remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the preserves into sterilized half-pint mason jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 5 minutes.
Note that the syrup will probably jell, but slowly, over a period of days.
Serve the preserves on toast, biscuits, pancakes, or ice cream.
Makes about 4 half-pints
*Nor does the melon taste like citron; it isn’t tart at all. Instead, its English name derives from its generic name, Citrullus, which was first applied to its cousin colocynth, or Citrullus colocynthis, a plant that loves very dry as well as hot conditions. Ripe colocynth fruits on the vine look like oranges scattered about on the ground, as if somebody’s shopping bag had ripped in the middle of the desert. Citrullus colocynthis was once a highly valued medicine, traded throughout the Old World for its purgative effect, despite its horribly bitter taste.