Tomato Report 2015

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 3Speckled 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 stripesChocolate 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 1Brandywine. 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.

Tomato Report 2014

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.

A Costoluto Genovese tomato, left, beside a Kishinev pepper
A Costoluto Genovese tomato, left, beside a Kishinev pepper

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.

Tangerine & Persimmon tomatoes
Tangerine and persimmon tomatoes. The cut one in the foreground is the Tangerine–I think!

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.

Berkeley Tie-Dye tomato
Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye tomatoes

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.

Return of the Rains

Goodbye to the summer beauties. If we don’t eat them, the fruit flies will.

 

This is a post from five days ago that somehow ended up in my drafts folder. Today there’s not a cloud in the sky, though leaves are flying past my office window.

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.

Oxhearts from the Garden

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 vines. In such a cold summer, of course, 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 a variety that is prolific, such as Anna’s Russian, an Oregon heirloom. And I’ll continue to plant Orange Russian, if only for its beautiful slices.