On the East Coast, the summer is a time of bounty. Nearly all of our local produce is harvested during the summer but it doesn’t all bloom at once. Heirloom tomatoes are at their juiciest in mid-August and early September, our reward for having endured a hot and humid summer.
Very little can better the unadulterated sweetness of heirloom tomatoes. But delicate scallops alla piastra offer a lightness of being that allows the tomatoes to sing.
First cultivated on the western coast of South America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy in the 16th century. Whereas store bought tomatoes are cross-pollinated to lengthen their shelf lifes, heirlooms varieties are open pollinated maintaining their distinct characteristics.
Heirloom seeds are holdovers from before industrial agriculture, when there was more variety in plants and vegetables. Certain heirloom varieties may have been commonly grown at various points in history but are not used in modern large-scale agriculture. Over decades and centuries, the seeds of heirloom vegetable varieties are saved and planted year after year, season after season.
Although they blemish and spoil much more quickly than factory produced hybrid tomatoes, heirloom varieties are worth the extra care and cost. The thin skin, subtle flavor, unusual colors, and eccentric names – Brandywine, Oxacan Jewel, Pink Ping Pong—yield a remarkably delicious fruit.
Generally, redder tomatoes are sweeter in flavor. Darker tomatoes mix of sweet and tart, such as the purple and black varieties. Green and white heirlooms are often more bitter.
Handle your heirloom tomatoes with care and don’t refrigerate them. Cold temperatures will kill the flavor. When you buy an heirloom, use it within a few days.