Red, Ripe, Delicious
Finding the tastiest tomato depends on selecting the right variety--at home or in the store.
Thursday, August 27, 1998
Let''s get a couple things straight right from the get-go. They''re not vegetables and they''re not necessarily red. "People know the tomato as a vegetable, but it is a fruit," says Henry Gong, produce manager at Star Market in Salinas. "They range in assorted colors, white, yellow, green, orange and striped tomatoes, there''s a medley of tomatoes, and they all have their own taste and personality. Your eyes are tantalized and your tastebuds get all the flavor."
At least that''s the way tomatoes are supposed to be. As anyone who has experienced the difference between homegrown and store-bought tomatoes can testify, there can be a night-and-day difference between the sweet, succulent fruit picked straight from the vine and those plucked from supermarket bins.
Although some stores in recent years have begun stocking limited varieties of heirloom and vine-ripened tomatoes, the basic tomato you see in the store is nearly baseball-sized, pale red, thick-skinned and nearly tasteless. What were once a taste sensation, have become a tribute to the science of mass production.
"Many of the varieties you find in the store are known to the growers only as numbers," says Bill Chaney, entomology farm advisor for the U.C. Cooperative Extension in Salinas. "They were developed for their yield and shipping qualities, and they''ll be referred to as number 178, or something like that."
"[Seed companies] have developed a tomato that''s large, a little on the thick-skin side so they can travel well and still have color but they may have left the flavor out," says Gong. "And they might be picking the commercial tomatoes too early. That''s why everyone grows ''em at home."
But growing tomatoes at home isn''t always as easy as it may sound, especially on the Peninsula where fog and ocean breezes keep temperatures on the mild side. To achieve their full potential, most tomatoes need the full benefit of summer sun. Although several varieties have been developed that will grow in cooler, shadier locations, homegrowers trying to raise bumper crops of large tomatoes (like Beefsteak) are likely to be disappointed.
Nursery personnel in the area generally recommend that people with a yen for homegrown tomatoes should stick with the smaller varieties that need less sun to ripen.
"The smaller tomatoes: Cherry tomatoes, Sweet 100s, Roma, Early Girls, those would be my favorites," says Sky Hellbusch of Griggs Nursery in Pacific Grove. "Your smaller varieties, they need less heat to ripen. If you planted Beefsteak, you''ll get tomatoes, but you''ll never get any size and they''ll never ripen."
But, Hellbusch notes, it''s hard to generalize about which varieties will grow best in every person''s yard. With so many different weather patterns throughout the county--and even within neighborhoods--it may be possible to defy the odds and successfully grow some of the larger tomatoes. "They were predicting 80 degrees in Del Rey Oaks today, here [in Pacific Grove] it''s 65," says Hellbusch.
Ann Tsuchiya, of Cypress Garden Nursery in Monterey, says her basic list of recommended tomatoes mirrors that of Hellbusch. But, she notes, "Even in different areas, there are micro-climates. People in Carmel may have some really warm areas, where they get ambient heat and they can grow some of the bigger tomatoes. But, if they''re not sure, we recommend the smaller tomatoes."
This year, with our nearly non-existent spring and equally overcast summer, it''s been especially difficult to grow tomatoes. Even in Carmel Valley, where Gary Ibsen grows the many varieties of tomatoes that were supposed to star in this year''s TomatoFest, the weather has been far from ideal for tomato growing and Ibsen has been forced to ship in tomatoes from Fresno.
Although the TomatoFest offers the single biggest tomato-tasting opportunity in the nation, even if you''re unable to attend this year''s festival, you have other opportunities to try new and unusual varieties, says Star Market''s Wong.
"You got all these farmers markets introducing heirloom tomatoes that are brought back from as early as the Amish in the 1890s," says Gong. "They''re fun to look at and they taste great. They have bumpy shoulders, knots, and they''re not perfectly round but people should try them. [The farmers markets] brought these out, and now at some markets around the county, you should look for all these tomatoes." cw
For more info on Sunday''s TomatoFest, see Hot Picks, page 26.