Supermarket tomatoes. What do these two words mean to you? Ease of purchase, uniform redness, blemish-free shiny skins and all-year-round availability? Yes, these would be the positives. But hopefully it won’t be a surprise to you to find out that tomatoes aren’t supposed to be like this.
In their natural state, tomatoes are seasonal, perishable and… well, occasionally ugly. But as large supermarket chains and their practices have started to dominate the retail market, growers have started to conform to their requests for uniform, disease-resistant fruit that can be stored and sold all-year round. Yes, it sounds practical. Convenient, even. But it’s highly unnatural.
So, in case you’re interested, to follow is a bit of a back story on how supermarket tomatoes have moved from A (being natural agriculture) to B (the tennis ball fruit in today’s supermarkets). Keep in mind that this is my abbreviated version of events, so if you’d like to read more take a look at my references below.
Here goes: about 70 years ago, small green grocers started folding up as large supermarket chains and their cost-cutting ability started to dominate the fresh food market. Supermarkets had the ability to import international produce or buy transported produce from across the country, rather than sourcing fresh stock from local independent farmers. Over time, consumers got used to produce being available almost all-year round, consequentially losing all concept of the natural ‘seasonal’ nature of fresh produce. Supermarkets moved to further meet this demand whilst also trying to minimise transport costs. This led to the practice of cold-storing bulk amounts of fresh produce for gradual sale according to market demand.
In its basic form, cold storage is a beneficial form of refrigeration that involves chilling fresh produce as soon as possible after harvest, preserving nutrients and preventing deterioration. However, most supermarkets go a few steps further. As far as I understand, most large supermarket chains buy fruit and vegetables before they’ve reached full ripeness (as mature-but-green fruits and vegetables are usually more resilient during transportation), chilling them as soon as possible after harvest, then storing them in a controlled-atmosphere area (with lower levels of oxygen and higher levels of carbon dioxide than normal air) to prohibit deterioration.
Some supermarkets also use a chemical called 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP) to block the biochemical changes that occur as a fruit naturally ripens and matures. This extends the shelf life of the fruit even longer, but tests have shown that when the fruit eventually ‘ripens’, it has less flavour and often remains partially hard (yep, that’s why your last lot of supermarket nectarines tasted like crap). Oh, and just in case the above process isn’t enough, most units also spray the produce with some additional fungicide to prohibit the growth of mold. Ah, lovely.
So, back to specifics: why do today’s supermarket tomatoes taste so terrible? It’s not just because they’re picked in an unripe state before being cold-stored for 4-5 calendar weeks. They’ve also been genetically modified through a process called heterosis to increase uniformity (in shape and colour), product yield and disease resistance. Unfortunately, these benefits were gained whilst sacrificing nutritional quality (in particular, carotenoids) and the essential sugars that provide a tomato’s characteristically sweet taste. But hey, you can buy them all year round, right? And if you drop them, they bounce.
Sadly, as these resilient and aesthetically beautiful tomatoes began to monopolize the commercial fresh food market, many non-genetically modified heritage varieties were lost to the general public (along with many small, family farms that were growing them). But here’s the good news: throughout the years, some small heroic producers, backyard gardeners and boutique seed collectors continued to grow these varieties, whilst drying and storing seed samples from tomatoes and other rare heritage produce. As interest in heirloom produce has blossomed, many of these people have started selling seeds in a not-for-profit manner via the internet. Excitingly, there are even some independent growers who are starting to produce heirloom vegetables for public sale at local farmer’s markets.
If you’re a Perth dweller like I am, I’d encourage you to visit the Subiaco Farmer’s Market (more details under ‘Retailers’ below), a small project run by like-minded Western Australians who sell organic and bio-dynamic fresh produce that’s been sustainably farmed. The stallholders at this market are the only local stockists of organic heirloom seedlings and selected heirloom fresh produce that I’ve found in Perth, so I’m definitely making every effort to support them. If you live locally, I’d encourage you to do the same. If you don’t live in Perth and you’re having difficulty sourcing organic, heirloom produce from a local grocer, I’d encourage you to prepare a patch of soil, get your credit card ready and check out the list of online seed retailers below. Yes, it will take a little longer, but there’s nothing like eating freshly harvested produce from your own garden. That’s agriculture, the way nature intended.
Below, you’ll find a very simple recipe for an heirloom tomato salad. It’s back-to-basics, rustic cooking (or rather, ‘seasoning’) that’s intended to accentuate the beautiful quality of the hero ingredient, rather than complicate it. Though I’ve included some rough measurements, everything should be adapted to your personal taste and the quality of your produce. For this reason, I’d suggest that you taste one of your tomatoes prior to beginning the process. Contemplate its sweetness, juiciness and intensity. Does it need extra salt? Some additional complexity? Once you’ve decided, add extra ingredients to taste.
I’d suggest that you eat this salad on a warm sunny day with a glass of white wine, a good friend and some buttered crusty French bread to mop up the sweet tomato juices. Deliciously good food, heirloom style (you’ll never be satisfied with a supermarket tomato again).
Heirloom Tomato Salad
- 1kg mixed heirloom tomatoes, washed and sliced (I usually do a mixture of wedges and horizontal slices)
- extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbs red wine vinegar
- 1 tbs balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, washed and torn roughly into pieces
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- a pinch of caster sugar, if your tomatoes aren’t sweet enough
- sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup fresh Parmesan, shaved
Place your olive oil into a medium pan over low heat. Add in your garlic clove, and saute gently until the clove becomes translucent and the oil is fragrant. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Place into a small bowl and whisk in your vinegars, the caster sugar and some sea salt.
Place your mixed tomatoes into a large bowl. Add in the basil leaves and some of the shaved parmesan (reserve some for garnish). Drizzle over your dressing, making sure that the garlic clove doesn’t fall into the salad. Mix well, then season to taste. Place onto a serving platter and garnish with your remaining shaved Parmesan.
- Heirloom tomatoes are generally heritage varieties that are open-pollinated and grown from seed. Unlike hybrid varieties, their seeds can be collected and replanted year after year, with the same genetic result (hybrid tomatoes will often produce different plants from seed, due to having a combination of ‘genes’ and both dominant and recessive traits).
- In general, heirloom tomatoes are less disease resistant and may be ‘uglier’ or prone to cracking. If you’re wondering why my tomatoes above are so pretty, well… yep, you picked it. They’re not all heirloom (as unfortunately, I couldn’t find enough). The heirloom varieties you’ll see are Dr Carolyn yellow cherry tomatoes, some Green Zebras and Purple Russians. There are also commercially available Italian Roma tomatoes from my local green grocer, and a singular red cherry tomato from my mother-in-law’s house (thanks Bev! My mother also grows fresh, organic apples, which get dropped off at my house during the fruiting season. You’ll see them on this blog eventually… I am a lucky daughter).
- You can easily collect seeds from any heirloom tomato you buy. Just squeeze the seeds from 3 or 4 small tomatoes into a jar or small container. Add in about the same quantity of water, then allow the mixture to ferment for 3-5 days. It will probably smell, but allow it to continue decomposing until a thin layer of mold has formed on the top. At this point, pour the mixture into a fine sieve, and wash your seeds out under the tap. Rub them well, until they’re clean and free of any tomato flesh or other residue. Spread them out on a paper towel to completely dry. Your seeds are now ready to plant.
- This salad is also beautiful with baby buffalo mozzarella or soft bocconcini in place of Parmesan. If using either of these cheeses, I’ll usually let the cheese marinate in the dressing with some additional lemon zest for at least 20 minutes prior to mixing and serving.
- Though this salad can be kept overnight, I find that the acid in the dressing changes the texture of the tomatoes quite quickly. Your tomatoes will also oxidise (react with oxygen) once cut, losing vitamins C, A and other essential nutrients such as calcium, potassium, sodium and phosphorus. For both of these reasons I’d encourage you to try and consume your tomato salad on the day that it’s made.
- Basil pairs beautifully with tomato in this salad, however if you’d like to mix things up a little, other herbs that complement beautifully include sliced chives, garlic chives, fresh Italian parsley or a little (and I mean, a little… trust me, it’s a strong flavour) fresh oregano.
Heirloom Tomato and other Heritage Seed Retailers:
- Subiaco Farmer’s Market: This Saturday market at Subiaco Primary School (271 Bagot Road, Subiaco in Western Australia) is the only fresh food market I know of that stocks organic, heirloom vegetable seedlings and selected fresh produce. I’d encourage you to support these small producers if you live in my home town; your health and taste buds will definitely thank you.
- The Lost Seed: A beautiful, Australian seed retailer that aims to make non-hybrid, non-genetically modified, open-pollinated, rare and heirloom seeds available to the public everywhere. Kerryn Martin, the company proprietor, says that it’s her passion to restore the availability of quality and nutritious produce that ‘…the industrialised world has taken away’ in the most natural way possible. I’m in full support of that!
- The Digger’s Club: An Australian gardener’s club that was established in 1978 to preserve old-world varieties of fruits and vegetables that were being dropped from mainstream supermarket shelves. They sell both organic seeds and beautiful live, organically-grown plants that can be mailed Australia-wide. This is my favourite garden store, period.
- Gary Ibsen’s Tomato Fest: This is an American-based company that specialises in the sale of heirloom and heritage tomato seed varieties.
- Seed Saver’s Exchange: Another American non-profit organisation that’s dedicated to collecting, saving and sharing heirloom, heritage and rare seeds.
- Beautanicals: Tomato Seeds Australia: an Australian heirloom tomato seed supplier. Yay for local resources.
References (if you’d like to read more):