It was one of the last Thursday night markets at Farmer’s Market and the misty clouds told me it was going to rain. It didn’t start to drizzle right away, though, and as I arrived at Steamboat Landing, there were still a few visitors wandering around the stalls. Under the glowing yellow lights engulfed by the night drapes, visitors were enjoying wood oven broccoli pizza, freshly made dolsa and wine tastings from one of the local vineyards. But these foods were not what I had come for; I had come to do a little tomato tasting at stall 53, where Alex Jackman introduced passersby to more than 50 varieties of tomatoes grown at his farm.
Displayed at Alex’s stall were a great variety of tomatoes and peppers. In particular, we were acquainted with his specialty heirloom tomatoes. By definition, heirloom tomatoes are the varieties passed down generations, and though the term is used liberally nowadays, there is still something unique about them that kept me mesmerized. As a frequent shopper of tomatoes, I’m well aware of their savory taste as compared to commercially grown or hybrid tomatoes you find in the grocery stores. Heirloom tomatoes are “true from seed,” which makes them gardeners’ favorites because the gardeners can get tomatoes from the same seeds that have been handed down generation after generation since WWII when early developers first bred them. Their quirky appearances always make me smile: some have single stripes, while others have a giddying ring of stripes; they are yellow, red, orange, purple, black, green, pale pink — you name it.
Alex invited us to taste the sliced samples of his heirlooms and hybrids. First we had Caiman: just the familiar meaty, big, bold-colored ones that looked very much like Beefsteaks. I was already picturing them on a mouth-watering piece of toast. Moving on, we had the Tomimaru Muchoo from Japan. It has round shape, pinkish skin, medium texture and a sweet, slightly acidic taste. The next one was the Japanese Trifele Black Tomato, a misnomer because it’s actually from Russia. It has a perfectly beguiling pear shape — its skin is a purplish translucent color and it has green streaks on the shoulder. Around four inches long, this is the tomato that I most wanted to take home for my next home-cooked meal; I think it had the most opulent taste of all, with its rich, layered flavor wrapped in a chocolaty exterior (after all, “trifele” can be translated into “truffle”). Next was the green zebra cherry: it has a warm yellow blush that accentuates the green stripes (hence the name “green zebra”), and it’s sweeter than other green zebras but with a tinge of tangy flavor that sets it apart from the heirloom tomatoes. Right after green zebra cherry, I had the Black Cherry, one-inch round deep red ones so delightfully small and juicy that I would not have been able to resist, were they in a green leaf salad.
After tasting all five tomato varieties, I was ready to take a few home. I use tomatoes in my soup, on my sandwiches and in my salads. From Jackman’s I picked out a few heirlooms: most of them golden raves and Japanese trifele black. As I swung my tote bag full of tomatoes on my shoulder, it started to rain. I was glad I didn’t go home empty-handed, but instead filled with hopes for some colorful new flavors that will burst into my mouth in the days to come.