Vegetable varieties are considered heirloom when they are over 50 years old or have been cultivated prior to the Second World War.
Tomatoes aren’t just red – the world of heirloom tomatoes presents a full spectrum of colours, sizes and shapes. Tam Andersen, owner and operator of Prairie Gardens & Adventure Farm near Bon Accord, grows over 50 varieties of heirloom tomatoes for its CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. She also sells fresh tomatoes and tomato plants at the farm gate, and supplies a few Edmonton restaurants. “Why just grow a red tomato when you can grow a black trifele or a yellow pear or a green zebra?” she says.
Heirloom tomatoes come in all shades, from classic red to orange, pink, green and purple. They can be solid in hue or multi-coloured with stripes and spots. Heirloom tomatoes also come in all sizes, from tiny cherries to hefty beefsteaks, as well as shapes ranging from the usual globe to pear-shaped and oblong.
Varieties are considered heirloom when they are over 50 years old or have been cultivated prior to the Second World War. They are also open pollinated, meaning that you can save the seeds year after year and you’ll get the same plant. Many heirloom tomatoes have been passed down in families – Andersen grew up eating the yellow pear tomatoes that her mother grew, which she grows now. “Heirloom tomatoes are truly the varieties that have withstood the test of time,” she says. “Some of them originate back in the 1800s. Their flavour is why people keep them going – they taste so wonderful.”
Heirloom tomatoes can be used in any recipe that calls for regular tomatoes, though their beautiful appearance and lovely flavour means they truly shine in fresh, uncooked dishes that best show off their unique colours and shapes – think salad, bruschetta, sandwiches, or on top of pizza.
Most commercial tomatoes are hybrids, bred to have desirable characteristics like colour and size as well as high yield and good storage capability. Heirlooms are often trickier than hybrids because they were preserved for reasons other than yield or storage. Many have very thin skins, which are lovely in the mouth but also means they crack easily and therefore can’t be transported long distances. This makes heirloom tomatoes truly a local treat: you probably won’t find them in grocery stores and only a few farms in Alberta sell them at farmers’ markets or to local restaurants. Grab them when you see them.
Alternately layer the tomatoes, mozzarella and basil leaves on a plate. Sprinkle with all ingredients except the vinegar and oil. Finish by drizzling with vinegar and oil to taste. Serve immediately with crusty bread to soak up the juices.
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