Heirloom tomatoes. You may have heard of them, or have a fuzzy idea of what they’re about, picturing dusty seed packets and ornate olde worlde specimens grown by eccentrics.
While there’s nothing wrong with eccentricity, there’s so much more to heirloom tomatoes than ‘weird old fruit’.
Today, we’re diving into the sweet, sour and surprising world of heirloom tomatoes, introducing you to over 130 different varieties and countless colours, flavours, shapes and textures. Plus, you’ll meet two humble Tassie farmers heading an heirloom empire, and why some of the best restaurants in the state are vying for their produce.
But first, the ‘heirloom’ thing. What does it actually mean?
If you said ‘old’, you’d be right. Kinda. The rule of thumb is that heirloom varieties should be at least 50 years old, or have a strong connection to a person or place. For instance, there’s no doubting who brought ‘Wilson’s Giant’ - a sweet and juicy monster who can reach up to 2kg - into the world.
But that’s not all. Heirloom varieties are special because their seeds have been saved by farmers who noticed that - hot damn, that’s a fine tomato. It’s the old-school way of selecting for desirable traits before DNA modification was a thing. And for one more geeky factoid, heirloom tomatoes are often ‘open-pollinated’, leaving the birds and the bees business to, well, the birds and the bees.
How are heirloom tomatoes different to ‘normal’ varieties?
To find out, let’s head to the supermarket.
Somewhere between the avocados and the celery you’ll spy tomatoes - the conventional kind. Plump, red and reassuringly uniform, their appearance is no accident.
Modern tomatoes are mostly hybrids, bred for consistency, storability, disease-resistance and yield, with flavour taking a backseat to on-shelf appeal. If you’ve ever bitten into a luscious-looking tom only to get a mouthful of flour, you’ll have experienced this trade-off first hand.
By contrast, heirlooms are upstanding oddballs, distinct in size, shape, colour, flavour and personality. And it’s precisely this quirkiness that makes them so appealing.
Tasmania’s heirloom empire
Now you’re au fait with tomato terminology, it’s time to meet Tassie’s leading heirloom authorities - a couple who are putting vintage ‘maters back on the menu.
Annette and Neville Reed started growing heirloom tomatoes at their Selbourne property in 2010, and have since amassed over 130 different varieties - alongside award-winning garlic and a bevy of organic edibles. They’re officially known as ‘Tasmanian Natural Garlic & Tomatoes’ (TNG&T), but ‘Green-thumbed Gurus’ is equally fitting.
Their offerings caught the eye of culinary royalty like The Glasshouse, MACQ01, Franklin and The Agrarian Kitchen; all proudly plating up TNG&T produce. Across the strait, you’ll find their tomatoes, garlic and condiments in a number of high-end eateries, and their produce in select fine food outlets.
In 2014, Annette was named Tasmanian Rural Woman of the Year, and when not tending tomatoes, is likely to be championing women in agriculture, founding charity organisations, or implementing holistic, regenerative and waste-reducing farming practices.
Red tomatoes? How passé.
For a magical (and frenetic) window of just six to eight weeks, Annette and Neville’s farm explodes with heirloom tomatoes; each row bedecked with technicolour toms of every shape and size - from multi-lobed beefsteaks to miniature orbs glowing purple and yellow.
Like discovering Harry Potter or your Dad’s epic record collection, this densely-packed tomato paradise has the potential to blow your mind.
There’s Golden King of Siberia, with royally sizeable, heart-shaped fruits hanging low on the vine. And Indigo Rose, a deep black beauty containing twice the antioxidants as her conventional counterparts. For nature’s own salsa, grab a Green Zebra Stripe; neon green and deliciously piquant. Or how about a Lemon Drop? A dainty golden morsel that bursts with citrusy zing - even better still warm from the sun.
This is but a sliver of TNG&T’s tomato portfolio, which represents over eight years of experimentation, refinement and expertise.
According to Annette and Neville, they simply grow what they love to eat - and boy, would we love to see one of their weeknight salads.
Let’s talk about seasonality
You may have noticed the short TNG&T season - just six to eight weeks. This reflects Annette and Neville’s commitment to seasonal produce, grown as nature intended.
They reckon natural tastes better, and biting into one of their perfectly ripe morsels, it’s hard to disagree. Rather than temperature-controlled hot-houses, they use open tunnels which allow the Tassie climate to dictate terms.
This leaves crops more vulnerable to meteorological vagaries, requiring a hands-on approach that occupies the TNG&T team from dawn till dusk. Then again, it’s also what makes their tomatoes taste so darn good, speeding up sugar conversion by day and arresting it by night - resulting in firm, juicy fruit with complex flavours and astounding sweetness.
In taking a traditional, seasonal approach to growing, TNG&T offer something rare and beautiful - specialty tomatoes that don’t stick around for long, but are all the sweeter for our collective anticipation.
If you’d like to get in while the toms are hot, grab a spot at the next TNG&T farm experience [hyperlink]. Those six-course heirloom tomato flights aren’t going to eat themselves, you know.