Heirloom Tomatoes and Terroir
Because heirloom tomatoes are delicious; because they come in so many flavors, colors, shapes and sizes and because buying the seeds helps keep regional seed companies in business, heirlooms are what we mostly grow. There are about 150 possibilities, so we try a few new ones every year. Only a few; lion’s share of the space goes to essentials like Brandywine, the tomato that (deservedly) put heirlooms on the map.
The essentials list is rich with possessives: Pruden’s Purple – Brandywine-ish, but earlier and usually smaller; Kellogg’s Breakfast – fat, juicy and orange, named for a railroad man, not Mr. Cereal; and Aunt Ruby’s German Green, which after trying many ripe-when-green tomatoes we have concluded is best.
There is also a must-have hybrid: Sun Gold, a yellow cherry tomato unmatched for sweet fruit, disease resistance and mind-bending productivity. One plant could feed the multitudes if it were happy and given free rein to grow as large as it wanted ( and if rain didn’t crack all the fruit, a very common misfortune)
left to right: Kellogg’s Breakfast, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Pruden’s Purple, White Wonder, Japanese Black Trifele. The little guys are White Currant
Where does the terroir come in? Because we grow the same varieties in both gardens but they don’t taste the same. The New York Brandywines, for instance, are sweeter than the Maine ones, while the Maine Green Grapes are swoonworthy compared to those from New York.
We’ve never tried a blindfold test and they do vary from year to year, but you can usually taste when you taste them the elusive “somewhereness” that wine writer Matt Kramer has used as a rough translation of “gout de terroir,” a staple term in winespeak. It can refer only to mineral flavors but just as often means “everything about a place that affects taste in ways that make that taste unique.”
The more literal translation is “taste of earth ( or soil),” though how and why – and if – it exists is a subject of some contention, especially in the wake of a debunking story in the New York Times ( Talk Dirt to Me) by Harold McGee
and Daniel Patterson.
To me it seems like a no-brainer, given all the ways – completely apart from the genetics of regional adaptation – that place matters to the taste of fruit: differences in soil lead to differences in nutrient uptake; differences in climate affect not only the plants themselves but also the likely assortment of pests and diseases and by extension the steps taken to combat them – or not.
The problem may be that in most cases you can’t compare growing places without comparing growers and the differences between them can easily trump everything else.
But not in our case. We are us in both places and our plants are as close to being the same plants as non-hybrid plants can be: all 70 of the seedlings we start with come from the same set of seeds and are grown by the same person at the same place (Jan MacDonald, at Barley Joe Farm in Warren Maine).
Maine babies about to hit the road for New York.
Oh, one more very important thing: we don’t make tomato wine and introduce all those variables, so my use of terroir for tomatoes can ( and no doubt will) be dismissed as apples and oranges. But if the taste of the fruit matters that little to the taste of wine, the dismissers are in a lot bigger trouble than anything I can cause.