Linda: "Looks can be deceiving." When it comes to tomatoes, truer words were never spoke. Did you know that most store-bought tomatoes are picked well before they are ripe and then ripened using ethylene gas? So a red tomato isn't necessarily a sweet tomato. Ripening a tomato on the vine and picking it at the optimal moment is the best way to get a tasty tomato.
There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes. We tasted eleven: green zebra, carolina gold, torbay, great white, Cherokee green, Mr. Stripey, purple Cherokee, brandywine, pineapple, early girl, and Oregon spring. About half of these tomatoes are heirloom varieties – i.e. not cross-bred with other varieties: an heirloom tomato is the tomato equivalent to a pure bred dog. Most people would say that to be called an heirloom, a variety should have a production history of at least 60 years.
We went to two Chicago farmers' markets and bought tomatoes from four farms:
Nichols Farm (http://www.nicholsfarm.com, Marengo, IL),
Scheeringa Farms (http://www.scheeringafarms.net/Home.html, Highland, IN),
Lange's (Elwood, IL), and
Gray Farms (http://grayfarmsproduce.com/wordpress/, Watseka, IL).
Sharon: You know that I was hesitant about tasting tomatoes. My thoughts before our experience were that you ate store-bought, fairly tasteless tomatoes the majority of the year and waited patiently until August for local, flavor-filled tomatoes. However, this tasting turned out to be quite an eye-opening experience. One of the most surprising findings was the difference in taste in the same variety.
I am fairly confident that if you did not compare flavors, textures and other characteristics side-by-side, you would never truly appreciate the range of flavors. I am not convinced that salt had a big effect on our results. Yes, we know that salt lifts the tastiness of everything, but if you have a lousy tomato, it just becomes a lousy tomato with salt. Overall, I think that there were true winners. Unfortunately, many fell just in the so-so range for me.
Green zebra (a winner!)
Linda: This is actually not an heirloom tomato, but was bred by Tom Wagner and introduced in 1983. The tomato from Scheeringa Farms was very pretty, sweet, and soft, one of my favorites. The one from Nichols Farms was very tart! Was it picked too soon?
Sharon: One of my favorites. I found the Nichols' slightly more tart, but overall, pleasantly sweet. I wonder if both zebras were a little over-ripe.
Mr. Stripey (a winner!)
Linda: An heirloom tomato, with interesting coloration. The one from Nichols Farm was a little watery. It wasn't acidic, but it also wasn't as flavorful as the green zebra. The one from Scheeringa was much more flavorful than the Nichols tomato and meatier as well.
Sharon: A true visual beauty. One of my favorites. Full of flavor with a balance of sweet and tart. I think Scheeringa wins by a nose only because I found it firmer.
Purple Cherokee (Linda's favorite)
Linda: This heirloom variety is said to be over 100 years old and is named because it is thought to have been originally cultivated by the Cherokee Indians. It was rediscovered by Craig LeHoullier. The one from Scheeringa was delicious, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth good! This was my favorite tomato of the tasting. The Gray Farms one was tasteless, tart, watery.
Sharon: A great find. But here was proof that the same variety from different farms can be dramatically different. Scheeringa wins by a landslide. Delicious. Gray Farms not worth mentioning.
Linda: A hybrid tomato. Pretty, egg-shaped. We sampled one from Nichols and one from Lange. Neither one was impressive. I didn't want another bite, after having the first.
Linda: The most popular heirloom tomato, dating back to 1885. We tasted one from Scheeringa. It is a gorgeous looking tomato, with a deep red hue. I found it tart and meaty. It was nice but no match for the purple Cherokee or Mr. Stripey.
Sharon: I was most excited about this tomato with the "perfect" look. But that is where my excitement ended. For all its beauty, it was extremely tart without a lot of flavor.
Linda: A beautiful, heirloom tomato. But watery with no strong taste.
Sharon: Mushy and tasteless. What a shame because once again, beautiful to look at.
Cherokee green (a winner!)
Linda: An heirloom tomato variety, also rediscovered by Craig LeHoullier. It was yummy! A perfect balance between tartness and sweetness.
Sharon: One of the ugliest tomatoes I have ever seen! But great balance of sweet and tart with lower acid (which I like). Delicious.
Linda: An heirloom tomato with a beautiful, lemon color. A bit bland, but meaty. Fewer seeds than the average tomato.
Sharon: This had a great lemony color and appeared to be very dense. But it turned out to be mushy, was it over-ripe? Not sure, but I didn't care for it.
Linda: This is a hybrid tomato. Bitter, not inviting.
Sharon: Bland, bland, bland. No taste whatsoever.
Linda: This is a hybrid tomato, originally developed by Oregon State University, as an early-in-the-season producing variety. Tart, nothing special.
Sharon: Looks like a grocery store tomato and tastes like one.
Linda: This is another hybrid tomato. It's called Early Girl because its plants produce toms early in the season. Deep red color and perfectly round. It was O.K. but had an odd after-taste. Skin is a bit too chewy.
Sharon: Another photo perfect specimen. Great to look at but left me with an aftertaste that I can't even describe. The skin was also thick and tough.