If you haven’t had an heirloom tomato, chances are you’ve never tasted a real tomato. Lucky for you, the fruit’s season peaks (though it also quickly wanes) in September—creating a great opportunity to find and savor (and hoard!) all sorts of heirloom varieties. We asked Paul Alward, farmer and co-founder of local food-distribution company Hudson Valley Harvest, to give us all the lowdown on heirlooms in the Valley.
Tomatoes are considered heirlooms once they have developed a long heritage with seeds that have aged many years, and, according to Alward, “heirloom season is the most anticipated because the colors and flavors just can’t be duplicated.”
There are hundreds of varieties, all varying in shape, color, flavor-profile, and acidity level. Colors range from bright red to stripped, or even purple, a phenomenon that typically dictates flavor; darker colors tend to be sweeter, while lighter tomatoes are lower in acid. This means tomato season allows for dishes that are not only delicious, but also inherently, aesthetically pleasing.
So if heirlooms are a better option, why are industrially grown tomatoes more available in stores? The answer is easy, says Alward: “Other tomatoes can be shipped. They are shelf-stable and can be picked green to ripen on the road.” This is concerning because large-scale farmers typically care little about how these tomatoes taste. “The last characteristic tomato farmers think about is flavor. They want stability, since these tomatoes, unlike heirlooms, go through a long shipping process – from farm, to packing house, to truck, to storage facility, to another truck, to the store.” Heirlooms are much more sensitive and wouldn’t survive all this jostling.
Depending on which variety you choose, heirlooms are great for sauces and jarring to be eaten once the season ends. But Alward says they shine bright in a very specific way—eaten fresh! “The flavors are like a celebration. They are a perfect encapsulation of summer—of sun, soil, and water.”