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The Great Tomato Hunt

After a historically bad, blight-stricken 2009, heirlooms are back with a vengeance. A taste-test of the season’s first arrivals.

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There are close to 6,000 varieties of cultivated tomatoes out there, according to Amy Goldman, author of The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table (Bloomsbury, 2008), and you can find not a few of them at the Union Square Greenmarket: Cherokee Purples, Green Giants, Brandywines, Great Whites, German Pinks, Banana Legs, Paul Robesons, and Green Zebras, for starters. Celebrity tomato man Tim Stark of Greenmarket’s Eckerton Hill Farm stand traffics in over 100 varieties (both heirloom and hybrid) alone. But who grows the best? On one hand, it’s foolhardy to even attempt to answer this question, as every single piece of fruit, even those grown side by side on the same plant, can vary in flavor from week to week and day to day. On the other, it’s the kind of task any tomato fanatic would happily engage in. To find out, we asked a dozen or so Greenmarket vendors to recommend their ripest, juiciest, most fully flavored fresh-eating (as opposed to cooking) tomato one recent Saturday morning. We threw in a few gourmet-grocer and supermarket specimens for good measure, and then we convened an expert panel of lycopene addicts including Goldman, Gramercy Tavern’s Michael Anthony, and Dan Kluger of ABC Kitchen to have at them in a blind taste-test. Our judges ranked the tomatoes on a ten-point scale, a “ten,” by general agreement, being a tomato that possessed the highest levels of both acid and sugar, exquisite balance, an inviting mouthfeel, and that certain quality known among love-apple aficionados as tomato-y-ness. Whether or not to salt was brought up for discussion (we went the purist, no-salt route), and so were topics like multilobed shapes (less usable flesh, but a turn-on for some), heirlooms versus hybrids (not all hybrids are bad), corky tissue (a fatal flaw), and “star cracking” (not a deal-breaker). Two hours and eighteen tomatoes later, the binge was over and we had our winner, based on an average of the judges’ scores. You can find it, and the other Greenmarket contenders, Saturdays in Union Square.

Stokes Farm
Aunt Ruby’s German Green $4.75/lb.
Our judges declared this green-when-ripe heirloom New York’s number-one tomato for its “bright acidity,” “excellent sugar-acid balance,” and “incredible juiciness.” “Love it. Love it. I love it,” cooed a smitten Goldman.
Score: 8.83
Norwich Meadows Farm
TIE
Striped German $4/lb.
Judge Kluger praised it for an “almost candylike flavor.” Anthony liked its “beautiful” red-yellow color, and Goldman called it “excellent if soft.”
8.33
Sycamore Farms
Cherokee Purple $3.75/lb.
Neck and neck with Norwich’s Striped German thanks to a “concentrated flavor,” “silky flesh,” and a “long, aromatic finish.”
8.33
Oak Grove Plantation
TIE
green zebra $3.95/lb.
An heirloom that lived up to its reputation for zingy acidity if lack of balance, and a favorite among our panel.
7.67
S. & S.O. Farm
Brandywine $4/lb.
Everyone liked its looks and “well-marbled” flesh, but Goldman took issue with a “disappointing” low-acid, low-sugar flavor profile.
7.67
Keith’s Farm
Paul Robeson $4/lb.
The only heirloom tomato we know named after a bass-baritone social activist got good marks all around for its “smoky,” “complex” flavor.
7.5
Hawthorne Valley Farms
Brandywine $5/lb.
A respectable fifth-place showing despite some cracking and a minor case of corkiness. “Sweet” and “rich” were two of the comments.
7
Cherry Lane Farm
Cherokee Purple $4/lb.
“Gorgeous,” enthused Kluger. “Balanced acidity and sugar,” said Anthony. “Fair to good,” demurred Goldman.
6.67
Van Houten Farms
Scarlet Red $3/lb.
The highest-scoring hybrid. “Nice overall appearance,” declared Anthony. “Well-colored flesh, good flavor,” said Goldman.
6
Eckerton Hill Farm
Cherokee Purple $4/lb.
Positive-enough comments (“juicy,” “very attractive,” “well-filled and well-marbled”), but not the top marks we expected from the reigning tomato titan.
5.83
LifeThyme Natural Market
Hepworth Farm Heirloom $5.99/lb.
Presumably a Brandywine, and one that had fallen on hard times. “Mealy,” “mild,” and “mushy” about summed it up.
5.67
Migliorelli Farm
Brandywine $4/lb.
Another Brandywine gone astray. Its only redeeming feature: high acidity.
5.33
Fairway
Heirloom $5.99/lb.
To be fair to Fairway, this beautiful but “bland” ribbed heirloom from Canada shouldn’t have made it to the table. It’s best for cooking, explained Goldman.
4.83
Ryder Farm
TIE
Jubilee $4/lb.
Kluger liked the acidity, but “mealy” was the operative word among all three judges.
4.33
Cheerful Cherry Farm
Big Bite $3/lb.
Not bad for a hybrid was the consensus, but Goldman found it “bland and watery.”
4.33
Gristedes
Jersey-Grown Hybrid $1.49/lb.
Judge Kluger said it best: “No real flavor.”
3.67
Whole Foods
Jersey-Grown Hybrid $.99/lb.
This field-grown Jersey tomato was on sale, but no bargain. Goldman gave it a “poor” for flavor and texture, and diagnosed it as suffering from “sunscald.”
3.33
Eli’s Manhattan
“All-Natural Eli’s Heirloom” $7.99/lb.
The most expensive but lowest-scoring tomato we tasted. Dr. Goldman’s diagnosis: “It’s anemic.”
2.67

Additional reporting by Sam Dangremond and Christine Whitney.
Photographs by Henry Hargreaves for New York Magazine. Illustrations by Lyndon Hayes.


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