Whether unique heirlooms or conventional garden varieties, tomatoes add freshness to a summer meal.
This story was originally published in the Summer 2008 edition of East Coast Living.
Summer is the sweetest of seasons when you’re craving garden-fresh tomatoes. Prime time for enjoying the fruit in Atlantic Canada is August and September, before the frost sets in. During tomato season, you’ll find an impressive selection of tomatoes at farm markets and grocery stores in our region, from the classic Beefsteak, to the dense Roma, juicy field tomatoes, tangy cherry varieties and beyond. Some farmers are starting to branch out into distinctive heirloom varieties in rainbow colours, unusual shapes and interesting flavours.
Locally grown tomatoes are nothing like the bland and mealy-textured store-bought varieties. Even those advertised as “vine-ripened” rarely deliver on taste. They may look bright and appealing but these tomatoes are selected for hardiness, with producers picking them before their prime so that they survive shipping.
A few summers ago, I was inspired to grow tomatoes on my patio. In June, I selected a sturdy looking plant from a garden-supply store, positioned the small tub in a sunny spot and tended to it all summer long. By early August, I was rewarded with a modest crop of ripening rosy fruit. I plucked my first tomato late into a summer’s day, the fruit still warm from the sun. I’ve since forgotten the particular variety but not the taste. It was luscious, bursting with a fresh flavour that hit just the right note between tart and sweet.
There’s something about this species of plant that stirs passion among growers who wax poetic about exotic-sounding tomato varieties. They pore over catalogues in the winter months and swap seeds and stories in the summer. “Once you discover tomatoes, there’s no going back,” says Jamey Coughlin. “It’s sort of like wine…There are so many tastes and textures and origins and stories.”
Coughlin and his wife Roxanne Beavers had tomatoes on the brain when they bought their farm a few years ago in Lower Onslow, Nova Scotia. Under the name Salad Bowl Gardens, the young couple grows and sells many varieties of heirloom tomatoes at the Truro farm market.
Though they didn’t take legal possession of their land until July 2005, the couple was already putting down roots—tomato roots, of course—by June of that year. Forty plants went on to produce baskets of brightly hued fruit for market later that summer. Last summer they tucked 163 tomato plants into the earth. “Part of the appeal of heirloom tomatoes is the variety,” Coughlin explains. “Each one has slightly different taste, shape and colour to appeal to the senses.”
Heirloom tomatoes have special character and history, growing from seeds that can be more than 50 years old and producing distinctive tomatoes sporting names like Black Krim, Green Zebra and Pink Brandywine. Large-scale growers tend to pass over these eclectic varieties because some of their features, such as thin skins, make them unsuitable for shipping.
“There’s a variety called Zapotec from Mexico,” Coughlin says. “It’s a late-season variety that looks smushed and ridgy. The flavour is dynamic—very rich and intense. This one is great for slicing because the visual aspects are so unique it’s nice to have it on the side of the plate.” He’s also fond of a cherry tomato called Snow White that’s white in colour and tastes like pineapple. But his favourite is Stupice, a medium-red heirloom from the Czech Republic he describes as a “taste winner.”
Another notable heirloom is the Garden Peach, a firm orange-hued standout that ripens with a hint of pinkness. It resembles a gigantic strawberry and weighs about a kilogram. “It’s fuzzy like a peach,” says Coughlin with a laugh. “In terms of flavour, each tomato has its own distinctive features. Like wine, they can be fruity or smoky or have a bouquet of peaches. Some are good raw, some are good for sauces and some of them look so beautiful.”
Like many tomato cultivators, Coughlin loves eating the fruit right off the vine. “It’s fresh and good and I just love being out amongst the tomatoes,” he says. “Pruning and weeding the vines and eating the tomatoes and seeing how they’re all doing.”
That kind of simple enjoyment of the fruit appeals to Sean Gallagher, owner of Terroir Local Source Catering in Halifax. He creates dishes built around locally available seasonal produce. “I would rather let a gorgeous thing like a vine-ripened tomato dictate what should be done with it,” he says. “If it’s fresh, maybe just eat it like an apple on the spot or make a rough bruschetta to serve on fresh-made olive bread.” He prepared heirloom tomatoes in a beautiful way for a wedding last summer, cutting up several varieties and serving them to guests on a sampler tray along with chunks of Nova Scotia feta cheese.
Rise and shine
“When there are so many green tomatoes that your heart skips a beat, eat them for breakfast,” says Sean Gallagher. “Take a couple green tomatoes, slice them along with a clove of garlic, heat up your frying pan and let them sizzle and crack with the heat, adding salt pepper and coriander if you like. Fry some eggs simultaneously and toast some French bread, too. In five minutes, you are ready to eat.”
Fresh tomatoes are also prized summer ingredients for chef Craig Flinn, owner of Halifax-based Chives Canadian Bistro. “You take a tomato right out of the field and it has been soaking up rays of the sun for a longer period of time and you can taste the difference and the nutrients and minerals in the soil of the terroir [elements in the soil and environment that give flavour] It’s just like growing grapes for wine,” he says.
Flinn cooks with tomatoes in many ways, drawing inspiration from local seasonal ingredients. “I use good-quality field tomatoes that are meaty and don’t have a lot of pulp and seed,” he says, adding that he relies on a steady supply of local tomatoes for his restaurant. He complements what he buys from local farmers, such as Four Seasons and Elmridge Farm, with growing his own in a garden carved out in his father’s orchard land in the Annapolis Valley.
It’s easy to see why this versatile fruit remains so popular among home gardeners, farmers and chefs alike. Tomatoes form the basis of everything from pasta sauces to soups, and during tomato season, a bonanza of fresh salads. “Tomatoes are a huge part of my summer salads, especially heirloom tomatoes,” Flinn says. He suggests combining half a dozen different types of heirloom tomatoes, chopped and tossed with fresh basil, a few chunks of mozzarella cheese, an aged balsamic vinegar-based dressing and served with crusty bread.
He grills big, hearty tomatoes, brushing thick slices with olive oil and grilling them quickly on both sides. He finishes the tomatoes with a sprinkle of sea salt, fresh-cracked pepper and a light drizzle of olive oil for a tasty accompaniment to grilled meat or fish. Flinn also makes use of cold-smoking equipment for a flavourful smoked-tomato soup and he prepares his own version of sun-dried or candied tomatoes by cooking sheets of tomatoes at very low temperatures for up to 15 hours. “They shrivel up and intensify in sweetness,” he says. He also pr serves tomatoes in Mason jars to keep the taste of summer going all winter long.
This summer, he’s expanding his garden and is setting aside over 93 square metres for tomatoes. “Last year we probably had 20 per cent of the garden for tomatoes and it wasn’t enough, so now I’m planning to devote 30 to 40 per cent,” he explains. For their part, Jamey Coughlin and Roxanne Beaver are scaling back on the number of tomatoes they plant this year. Their energies are shifting to a production of a different kind. The couple is expecting their first child in early September, coincidentally right around the time when their tomatoes plants are in full and glorious fruit.