|'Sweet Treats' and 'Punta Banda'|
It happens every year. We hover around the garden for weeks watching the progress of the tomatoes. As the fruits get bigger the scrutiny intensifies. Finally, a little red shows up on one or two. By now, there is an avalanche of tomatoes requiring picking twice a day to keep up with their frantic ripening and beat out the birds and rodents.
Tomatoes are one of the catalog of foods that the Spanish found in cultivation when they conquered Mexico, took home to curious, and probably skeptical, cooks. Although they weren’t a big hit at first, they looked too much like European nightshades that were deadly, they slowly built a following along the Mediterranean, moving north into Europe gradually.
They weren’t a huge hit in this country at first, but Thomas Jefferson grew them in his extraordinary 18th century garden at Monticello. Then around1879 a man named Heinz bottled tomato catsup. That gave tomatoes a big shot in the arm and we have never looked back.
I love all their names. Lycopsericum, the genus of tomato, means wolf peach. The French call them pomme d’amour, the apple of love and the Italians named them pomodora, golden apple. In English the Anglicized version of the Aztec name, tomate, took hold.
Many 19th century American varieties were pleated, but the style fell out of favor as canning and shipping increased. I have ‘Tlacalula’ a pleated variety from Mexico in the garden this year. This is a big vine with large, wrinkled, odd-shaped fruit with firm, thick flesh that makes especially suitable for sauces.
Desert vegetable gardeners have long recognized that small varieties, called cherries, do extremely well here. There are numerous red varieties and two especially find yellow ones, ‘SunGold’ and ‘Yellow Pear’. This year I am growing ‘Sweet Treats’ which is purple-red, prolific and delicious. This type of tomato is a pop of flavor, making them especially delightful as a garden snack.
Italian gardeners took to tomatoes pretty quickly. The climate was great for them and this fruit dried and preserved well. The two crown princes of Italian tomatoes are ‘Roma’ and ‘San Marzano’ both of which grow well here. This year I have ‘San Marzano’ which are tastier to me than ‘Roma’. ‘Roma’ is a highly reliable variety for me, while ‘San Marzano’ is coy. Some years there is abundant fruit, other years practically nothing. Who would ever know why? Tomato speak in their own language, I just try to keep up. This year the ‘San Marzano’ are abundant and I am deeply grateful.
My all-time favorite tomato is the Southwestern, open-pollinated variety ‘Punta Banda’. This variety produces rambling, ground hugging vines with all the fruit under the leaves, almost on the ground. The fruit is a perfect, deep red orb with firm skins. These are the last tomatoes to give out when the heat sets in and year after year give over pounds and pounds of fruit. It was preserved from oblivion by Native Seeds/SEARCH and it is now a local favorite of many market farmers.
I have grown a great many tomato varieties over the years, starting them in my unheated germination chamber at Thanksgiving. I always wonder why we are all so seduced by them, taking endless trouble with them, offering precious space in a small garden to them. In the end I don’t think it is romance, or cultural memories, I think it is because they just taste so darn good.