From Too Many Chefs -

July 27, 2004
Who Wants Some Old Tomatoes?

that kooky tomato guy

A few years ago I started to interest myself in gardening on the balcony of our Paris appartment. I bought myself some books and bankrupted myself in the basement of BHV buying supplies (my favourite store in Paris - you can find anything in the basement of BHV) and planted seeds. My family and friends were delighted by the new trend as it gave them some new ideas for Christmas and birthday presents (mostly how-to books) and they were able to track my garden online for a while. Aside from my brother I think they thought I was getting a little flaky when I progressed to composting with my very own wormery, but generally it was seen as an amusing hobby. I guess as a result of my green tendencies a lot of friends and family suggested I try my hand at planting so-called "heirloom" seeds: those varieties that used to be common a hundred years ago and have all but disappeared from our earth today. I thought it was a great idea but it had a few practical drawbacks for myself: 1) it's all I can do to get the carefully genetically cultivated (not modified, heaven forbid) "normal" plants to grow in pots and 2) how would I know if they were turning out "right"??

Great idea, not so good for me personally. When shopping at the market, on the other hand...I am a willing and enthusiastic guinea pig!

heirloom toms 2.jpg As a result, I was absolutely delighted to find a stand at the market on Saturday that dealt with "anciennes variétés de tomates" (heirloom tomatoes). I knew I could only remember the name of one variety at a time (note to self: bring a pad of paper next time) so I chose a pound of the most interesting looking ones. Even so, it took me a little web research to reconcile my remembered name (calabèche pourpre) with the actual name of these tomatoes, calebasse pourpre (Purple Calabash). But we got there in the end and I'm able to tell you with confidence the name of these delightful little fruits. Don't you love the pumpkin-like shape? They look like they were made for a miniature Cinderella. (Incidentally, this probably is why I heard the name wrong initially - a calèche is an old-fashioned carriage in French and I think that was in my mind as soon as I saw them!)

heirloom toms.jpg Last night I sliced up two of them for a simple salad to accompany the main dish (which you will surely read about tomorrow if you come back for more). And the result? They seemed a little tougher than the usual varieties of tomatoes, which surprised me as the tomato seller was careful to inflate their bag and tie it tightly before handing it over. I assumed therefore that they would be very delicate, but in fact the skin was a bit thicker than usual and the flesh fairly dense. However, that does not mean to say they were less good than your average tomato. On the contrary, they were fully of flavour, a bit sharp but not under-ripe. Delicious. I have a few of the tomatoes left and I think they would probably make a very nice salsa or fresh chutney, not too soupy or too sweet. I'll have to hit the cookbooks tonight and see if I can find anything interesting! And next week, I'll bring my camera and notebook to the market and try some more of the new old varieties...and maybe manage to get a photo of the tomato seller where he doesn't look like a mad ax-murderer!

If you are interested in heirloom tomato seeds yourself, you might find the following links useful:

Gourmet Tomatofest (They have the purple calabash variety!)

Burpee seed catalogue

Posted by Meg in Sussex at July 27, 2004 6:05 AM | TrackBack

That big furry one in the back looks like it's off.

We enjoyed heirlooms as a big part of one of our lunches in Seattle. We bought weird looking tomatoes of several varieties and a travel knife, and picnicked later that day by the Olympic coastline.

Posted by Barrett on July 27, 2004 at 7:09 AM

No photos? No names? Did you think you were on holiday or something?? Honestly...

Posted by Meg in Paris on July 28, 2004 at 8:45 AM

Heirloom tomatoes - mmmm. I live on them between late June and October. I live in the SF Bay fogbelt so I must buy mine at the market, trucked in from Real Tomato country.

Brandywines are my favorite - they are big and deep rose. I don't know what it would be in French. Marvel Stripe - yellow striped with red, turning redder as riper - are next. But I like eating most of them, and love most of the names.

Posted by Charlotte on July 30, 2004 at 8:53 AM

Charlotte - this was my first foray into the heirloom selection but I'm going to try to get back to the market this weekend and try some of the other varieties. I love the idea of resuscitating old strains and certainly they all seem to have more flavor and interest than the usual toms. It's a great trend and I'm glad there are so many people out there supporting it!!

Posted by Meg in Paris on July 30, 2004 at 9:03 AM

Meg, I seem to recall that the heirloom phenomenon only got out of backyards into the markets in the last decade or so in the US. (This may be different in France where I understand "old fashioned" varieties with good taste have had more of a commercial chance.) Twenty years ago I regularly shopped at the Farmer's Market in Davis, California, which is in the heart of tomato-growing country, and it was pretty much Early Girls all the way at the market in summer. Mind you, EG is a very tasty variety when it is really ripe, but even a yellow cherry tomato was pretty unusual.

When I started shopping at the Berkeley Farmer's Market in the late nineties, they were all over in season. I was completely stunned by the sight (it regularly stops visitors in their tracks) and the taste was like the home-grown and farm-stand wonders of my Sacramento Valley childhood. I was hooked.

I have seen mention of heirlooms in a number of my cooking magazines so I have to assume that this is not just because I live in Left Coast Foodie Heaven. I am even starting to see greenhouse grown varieties in my exceptional produce market way out of season (like, in January) but I think that is just wrong so won't buy them.

That was quite a display of tomatoes, and the stall holder (farmer?) should be pleased with them. I keep my tomatoes in a glass dish on the table where I can see them and admire their colors and curves.

When you get beyond the Tomato-Sandwich and Tomato-Salad stage, I commend the Bread Salad recipe on my blog to your attention:

(link may wrap but it is in a "recipe post" section on the main page sidebar - thanks to you at TMC for that idea!)

Posted by Charlotte on July 31, 2004 at 2:30 PM

you are so right about the heirloom tomatoes. They do have strange shapes which our visitors called "they've come through an attack by greenfly - ohh nohh, did you spray them, are they safe to eat"...
This year was the first time we have seen them for sale and have bought several of these 'unknown' varieties.
The ones we have grown came from the 'personal farmer's garden' section at our local farmers' cooperative.

We are pleased to find that they have the most delicious flavours. The pineapple tomato is our favourite. We cut it into cubes that don't fall apart or go all fludgy-mushy in a mixed salad, put them sliced on bread-and-butter, or cook them filled with grapes in the (microwave) oven to have a pleasant 'sweet' vegetable with spicey roast chicken or even as a hot desert.

Posted by Ju somewhere in the north of France on September 14, 2006 at 8:59 AM