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 TomatoFest andTotally 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 TomatoFest and 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’m hurrying to get out this report to you, because here in the Willamette Valley it’s nearly tomato-starting time already.
Our long hot summer last year produced bountiful tomato harvests for many of my neighbors but a strangely scant one for me; apparently, the unusual heat made the plants repeatedly drop their blossoms. My report here is limited to the few varieties that produced fairly well in my garden.
Costoluto Genovese has deeply ribbed, meaty red fruits with large seed cavities. The lovely look of this fruit makes the bland taste all the more disappointing. Like most Italian tomatoes, this one has apparently been bred for sauce or drying, not for fresh eating. The low sugar and acid levels call for concentration.
Tangerine is a medium-large to large, squat, old yellow-orange variety that won brief fame several years ago after scientists showed it to have more absorbable lycopene (an anti-oxidant that may protect against some cancers) than a typical red tomato. Early in the season my Tangerine fruits seemed to have low acidity and an unremarkable flavor, but after mid-summer, as often happens with tomatoes, they tasted much better. The acid level, in fact, seemed unusually high for a yellow tomato.
Persimmon is an heirloom from the 1800s (says Territorial), from 1781 (says Henry Field’s), from about 1983 (says Gary Ibsen), or from the 1880s (says a Seed Savers Exchange member in Wisconsin). The tomato is originally from Russia, says Burpee. It was grown by Thomas Jefferson, says Henry Field’s.
Whatever its origins, Persimmon turned out for me much like Tangerine—in the appearance of the fruit, the size of the plant (both are indeterminate), and earliness (about 80 days). But Persimmon’s skin color was a softer orange, truly reminiscent of its namesake, and the fruit tended to develop a navel-like blossom end. The flesh may have been a little less tart and flavorful than that of Tangerine, but Persimmon also had an appealing creaminess. My Persimmon plants were a little less productive that my Tangerine plants.
I had trouble choosing a favorite between these two big, delicious, blemish-free tomatoes. In the kitchen I didn’t try to keep them separate. I can tell you, though, that ratatouille made with Tangerine or Persimmon tomatoes or both is as tart as it should be and at the same time startlingly sweet.
Druzba, a Bulgarian red tomato, is about the same size and shape as Tangerine and Persimmon (Burpee calls Druzba a “mini-beefsteak”) but has bigger seed cavities and apparently even higher acidity. I will certainly grow it again.
Striped tomatoes are the rage now, and Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, bred by Bradley Gates of Wild Boar Farms, is the best I’ve tasted so far. My friend Wendy, to whom I gave a plant, reported that it was “early, prolific, very attractive, and excellent tasting.” It wasn’t prolific for me, but I have high hopes that it will be this year.
If you’re still not sure which tomatoes to plant this year, you may want to also consult my Tomato Reports from 2012 and 2009-11.
I’ve had to don fingerless woolen gloves to type this.
I started out the morning by making a big batch of salsa, marveling at the flawlessly beautiful tomatoes I’d picked from frost-blackened vines. In October! I’d never before seen blight-free tomatoes in western Oregon in October. Though summer had started late, it had run dry and long. We were still awaiting the first fall rains.
I was both disappointed and relieved that today’s mushroom hike had been canceled. We wouldn’t have found any mushrooms, and anyway rain was expected. We might have gotten drenched.
This thought led me to take a hard look out the window as I lifted the salsa jars out of the canner. I’d thought the rain wouldn’t come until mid-afternoon, but the leaden sky told me otherwise. Our sweet Mediterranean holiday was over. Though pleased to have finished digging the potatoes yesterday, I had a lot of work to do before the god Huracán de Oregón came lurching home to weep and moan for the next seven or eight months.
I was immediately out the door. I took down the hammock and the bamboo shade for the deck, covered the burn pile (bramble cuttings and wild carrot with seedheads), and began rolling up Reemay row covers as the first drops started to fall. Oregon storms always bring more wind than rain, and the wind would surely knock down the ripest fruits in the orchard. I picked the Seckel pears, ran indoors to throw my long red raincoat over my wet clothes, and dashed back out to pick all the Seuri Asian pears. Hurrying to the vegetable garden to behead the sunflowers, I remembered the beans, or what the deer had left of them. The pole beans might continue to ripen and dry, but the bush beans would rot in the rain. I cut the stems at the ground and threw them into a wheelbarrow to spread on the shelves in the greenhouse.
After stuffing my pockets with green tomatoes and a few odd forgotten peppers and tomatillos, I returned to the house shivering and fatigued in a way I never feel in summer. I hadn’t drunk a cup of hot tea in months, but that was exactly what I needed now.
This afternoon I’ll make another batch of salsa and some greengage jam, and maybe some Asian pear jam, too. After my hair dries, if the rain stops for a while, I’ll start a wood fire in the kettle grill on the deck and roast a few pecks of peppers. And then I’ll come back in and sip tea, and listen with only half an ear while Huracán rages. All winter long.
A dozen seed catalogs arrived here in December, and now planting time for tomato seeds is just around the corner. What to grow in 2012?
For the past three years a couple of local friends and I have been sharing notes on the tomato varieties we’ve grown. Now I’d like to share my notes with all of you, starting with last year’s. Notes on the 2010 and 2009 tomatoes follow those on the 2011 crop.
I must warn you that 2011 was a strange year in western Oregon; summer came late, and we had few days of really hot weather. It was a bad year for melons, squashes, cucumbers, and peppers as well as for many tomato varieties. Depending on your climate and luck, varieties that failed me last summer may thrive for you.
Jersey Devil is a long, tapered, meaty red tomato; it looks like a ripe bull’s-horn pepper. Or, rather, it’s supposed to look like that, but none of my fruits turned red. According to Tomato Growers the time from planting to harvest is only 80 days, but this must mean 80 days of hot, hot weather.
Tomato Growers says that Carbon is among the darkest of the “black” tomatoes, but its skin, actually, is a blend of pinkish-red and green; the beautiful blackness is on the inside of this oblate tomato. Whereas the catalog says Carbon weighs to 8 to 12 ounces, my fruits were as large as 30.5 ounces. Although this tomato is supposed to be resistant to cracking, most of my fruits cracked a bit (staking helps). This tomato is a little late–80 days, according to Tomato Growers–but its flavor is outstandingly rich. I would choose it over Black Krim (see my notes on 2010).
Again I grew Juliet, a hybrid from Tomato Growers. The fruits ripened slowly but surely, and I dried loads of them.
Silvery Fir Tree, a compact variety with unusually fine foliage,was recommended by Barbara Kingsolver in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Unfortunately, the 2- to 3-inch round fruits were bland. More disappointing still was the ripening time—58 days, according to Tomato Growers, but I got only three or four ripe fruits from as many vines; the rest of the fruits turned from green to fall rot.
Early Wonder is supposed to produce tasty, round, 6-ounce fruits on determinate vines. For me it produced only a few late, pinkish fruits.
Other gardeners in this area swear by the cold-hardy Czech tomato Stupice (“stu-peach-ka”), but for me this variety has been bland and relatively unproductive. It is early, though: The 2- to 3-inch fruits on indeterminate vines start ripening in only 52 days.
My Virginia Sweets were just as described in the catalog: productive, indeterminate, a little on the late side (80 days), with enormous yellow and red fruits. One of mine weighed 35.5 ounces! The fruits are much like those of Pineapple (see 2010) but generally bigger and less prone to deformity.
Purplish-skinned Black Cherry has wonderful flavor, with the high sugar and acid typical of cherry tomatoes plus the chocolate note of black tomatoes. The vines fruit moderately early, but I found it hard to judge ripeness by appearance.
A Siberian variety introduced by Nichols, Black Prince is 2 to 3 inches in diameter, slightly elongated, brick-red to green on the outside, deep red on the inside, and tasty. This tomato’s only fault is that it’s prone to sunscald. The vines are very productive and rather early.
Celebrity is a hybrid tomato, a 1984 All-American Selection that’s said to have exceptionally flavorful 7- to 8-ounce fruits. The vines were slow to produce for me. I got only a few round to pointed fruits.
An extremely productive oxheart variety, Anna Russian is considered an Oregon heirloom. Here’s the story: Brenda Hillenius, a member of Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), got the seeds from her grandfather, Kenneth Wilcox, a longtime Oregon gardener who said he had gotten the seeds from a Russian immigrant, whose family had sent seeds of the tomato from Russia. With no place to grow the tomatoes herself, Brenda sent the seeds to another SSE member, Craig LeHouillier of North Carolina. (I don’t know who Anna was; on first hearing this story I thought she was the immigrant, but in Brenda’s note to Craig, which he shared with me, she referred to the Russian as him.) Craig planted the seeds, saved the seeds of the resulting fruits, and shared Anna Russia through SSE. The variety is now available through many seed companies.
The indeterminate vines produce oodles of early, heart-shaped, meaty, pink-red fruits of variable size but mostly about 1 pound. The shoulders turn yellow when exposed to strong sun, but few of the fruits cracked at all. Like the fruits of Orange Russian (see 2010), they are very flavorful. I will probably grow this tomato every year from now on.
I got very few ripe fruits of Red Zebra, a beautiful little red tomato whose skins bear vertical golden stripes. As in 2009, this tomato was prone to spots of some sort.
Chocolate Stripes, from Tomato Fest, has 3- to 4-inch mahogany fruits with vertical olive stripes. Almost none of the fruits ripened for me. Like the Red Zebras, they didn’t taste nearly as good as they looked.
Sweet Pea Currant tomato, a low, sprawling plant that produces zillions of yellow flowers, is said to be the immediate ancestor of the modern tomato. Its drought- and disease-tolerance makes it useful in breeding programs, but I can’t see that this plant has much use in the garden. The tiny, thick-skinned, slightly bitter fruits ripened slowly and unevenly, mostly on the underside of the viney mat. For me, they weren’t worth the trouble of picking. I got the seeds from Tomato Fest; they are also available from Territorial and SSE.
Flamme, or Jaune Flamme, is a French heirloom with 1 1/2- to 2-inch oval fruits that are yellow-orange inside and out and that virtually never crack. The fruits somehow feel especially smooth, almost creamy, in my mouth. Fruiting was early, and I saw no sign of disease whatsoever in these extremely productive vines. The seeds came from Tomato Fest.
Varieties from 2011 that I will definitely plant again are Flamme, Anna Russian, Black Prince, Black Cherry, and Juliet.
Principe de Borghese, a determinate variety from Tuscany, is variable in size and shape—1 to 1½ inches wide, round to oval—and it has a little nipple at the blossom end. Principe is juicier than other Roma types, but it’s still bland, not very sweet and not very sour.
Momotaro, according to Rose Marie Nichols McGee, of Nichols Garden Nursery, is now quite popular in California as well as in Japan. My friend Sally didn’t much like this indeterminate variety, which is about 2 inches across, round to oval, pinkish red, and very firm. I didn’t care for the thick skin, but I liked the sweet, tart flavor. This tomato might be good for canning (after peeling, of course) and for shipping.
Originally from Ukraine and sold by Nichols and Pinetree, Black Krim is 3 to 4 inches across and oblate, with mixed green and red skin that’s very prone to cracking. I loved this tomato for its beautiful green and red interior—red in the center, with green gel around the seeds and dark outer flesh. The flesh is mild-flavored and juicy, the vine indeterminate.
Pineapple, available from Nichols and Pinetree, is a big, irregular, late tomato with red and yellow flesh and a tendency to crack. I wouldn’t be able to distinguish this variety from a red-yellow Brandywine cross that happened in my own garden. The vine is indeterminate.
I bought seeds of Golden Queen from Pinetree, though I don’t see this “heirloom” (it’s at least fifty years old) in the 2010 catalog. Golden Queen produces lots of medium-size, round, flawless yellow-orange tomatoes. Like most yellow tomatoes, they’re a little bland, but they’re not bad at all.
Two hybrids, Champion and Early Goliath, produced big, round, perfect red fruits, as usual.
Little, early Bloody Butcher and smaller Sweet Million were also good, although the latter never seems as prolific as Sweet 100.
Juliet is an extremely productive vine with small plum-shaped fruits. They have some of the flavor and juiciness of cherry tomatoes, but, unlike most cherry tomatoes, they resist cracking. I have dried thousands of Juliets, after cutting them in half lengthwise.
Hard Rock was a freebie from Totally Tomatoes, and its unappetizing name almost kept me from trying it. Actually, the name suits it well. This tomato is oval and very firm, like a stone out of the creek. But it has better flavor than paste types like San Marzano, a strong red color, and extreme disease resistance. I’ve used it a lot for drying, cut crosswise into rounds, and also for salsa.
Bloody Butcher is early, with medium-small, bright-red fruits and potato-leaved vines.
Stupice is smallish, round, and early. It’s my friend Sally’s favorite tomato for dependability and taste.
I’ve had trouble keeping track in the garden of which big, round tomato is which, but all the ones I got from Totally Tomatoes were excellent. They included Early Goliath, which is supposed to ripen in only 55 days; I’m not sure that’s correct. Big Beef Hybrid ripens later (73 days) and is very big. First Lady II (66 days) was good, too. Champion (62 days) is a little smaller and always good; I’ve grown it for many years.
Marcellino is a cherry tomato that resists cracking.
I selected most of the 2009 tomatoes from Totally Tomatoes for their disease resistance. Those that failed in this regard were Red Zebra (prone to spots of some sort) and San Marzano (extremely productive but prone to internal blossom-end rot and mold, besides being virtually tasteless).
To can salsa cruda—literally, “raw sauce”—requires cooking it, but cooked tomato salsa just isn’t the same. Usually, it turns out runny. Commercial salsa makers compensate for this by adding tomato paste, which tastes, well, like tomato paste. To really ruin the texture, some add gums. Home canners often minimize runniness by using paste tomatoes, such as the oblong variety known as Roma. Low in both acid and sugar, these firm, fleshy tomatoes taste bland and boring.
To make canned tomato salsa with both a thick texture and an excellent flavor, I decided to bake some of the water out of assorted tasty tomatoes before mixing them with onions and peppers. Here’s how I did it:
Thick Tomato Salsa
5 pounds tomatoes, preferably no larger than 2 inches wide or long 2 pounds green or ripe peppers, hot or mild, stemmed 1 pound onions 1 cup lime juice 1 ½ tablespoons pickling salt
Heat the oven to 250 degrees F. Halve the tomatoes, and cut out any thick cores. Lay the tomato halves cut-side up in a single layer in two or three low-sided baking or roasting pans—glass, ceramic, or enameled pans will do. Don’t add any oil; you want the tomatoes to dry out. Bake them for about 3 hours, until they have noticeably shriveled but haven’t browned.
Drop the tomato pieces into a large nonreactive pot, halving any large ones with shears as you do so. Seed the peppers or not, depending on your heat tolerance. Then either mince the peppers and onions or chop them briefly in a food processor; be careful not to liquefy them. Add them to the pot along with the lime juice and salt. Stir.
Bring the salsa to a simmer, and simmer it for 10 minutes. Ladle the salsa into pint or half-pint mason jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Close the jars with two-piece caps, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.
While last summer’s blackened tomato vines still hang on their bamboo trellises, the seed catalogs are starting to arrive in my mailbox. Before I get absorbed in dreams of next year’s crop, I need to take stock of this year’s successes and failures.
It’s time to update my running, year-by-year tomato report, which I’m writing with my friend Sally and sharing with whoever cares to read it. Because it seems unfair to judge a tomato variety that I’ve grown only in a year when summer never came (as happened here in western Oregon), I’ll reserve some judgments until next year. But there’s one find I want to share: the oxheart tomato.
The oxheart isn’t a single variety; it’s a group of varieties with common characteristics and, apparently, common European breeding. Many have names like Orange Russian and Hungarian Heart. The vines are usually indeterminate—sprawling and continuously productive—and the foliage tends to be fern-like. Most of the available varieties are very old; none of them, as far as I’ve discovered, is a hybrid.
But it’s the fruit you care about, right? Typically it’s shaped like a heart or a strawberry, though individual tomatoes and some oxheart varieties may be round or oblong. The fruit tends to be big; ‘Bull’s Heart’ is said to grow to 2 pounds and larger, and ‘Giant’ to 3 pounds. And here’s what’s really important about these tomatoes: They are solid, meaty, with few seeds, and yet they are fairly acidic, juicy, and tasty. They are often described as fragrant.
Cooks making salsa and tomato sauce, and especially tomato paste, are often advised to use dense-fleshed plum tomatoes such as ‘Roma’ or ‘San Marzano’. Face it, though: These tomatoes taste bland and cottony, however local and organic they may be. What a joy to find a tomato that’s both meaty and delicious.
Oxheart tomatoes are most often pinkish, but some varieties are tomato-red, orange, or yellow. ‘Verna Orange’ is said to be the same color inside as a persimmon. And now there’s a bi-colored oxheart. Developed by Jeff Dawson of California, it’s a cross between ‘Georgia Streak’, a red and yellow beefsteak tomato, and the oxheart variety ‘Russian 117’. Dawson’s creation is called ‘Orange Russian 117’, and it’s my great tomato find of 2010.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of fruits on my ‘Orange Russian 117’ vines. In such a cool summer, I got few tomatoes of any sort. But Mandy of Mandy’s Greenhouse, who grows quite a lot of oxheart varieties under cover in Manitoba, suggests that they generally aren’t very prolific. No matter; for next year I’ll choose an oxheart variety that is prolific, such as ‘Anna’s Russian’, an Oregon find. And I’ll continue to plant ‘Orange Russian 117’, if only for its beautiful slices.