Heirlooms – history with flavor!

About five years ago, I’d never tasted an heirloom tomato before. I was living in a small town in New England when I met my friend, Michael. He and his partner ran a small organic farm in the middle of the woods. By saying “the middle of the woods,” I mean that it was literally inaccessible by car – you needed a high-clearance vehicle to get down his rutted-out, muddy road.

When he invited me over for a “salsa-making party,” I really didn’t know what to expect. Having only lived on my own for a few months, I wasn’t a great cook, and I was a little intimidated – I didn’t know anything about making something even as simple as salsa!

The evening began with a the farm tour. Michael showed me all of his vegetable fields and introduced me to all of his chickens and Nubian goats. When we sat down to begin making salsa, he laid out a bewildering array of tomatoes and hot peppers in the kitchen – purple, red, orange and yellow tomatoes, ancho poblano and jalapeño peppers. He explained that chipotle peppers are smoked, dried jalapeños. It had been years since I’d had a vine-ripened, fresh tomato, and even then, my family only grew “Early Girl” and other red, perfectly round tomatoes. So when Michael handed me a huge, purplish tomato, my first reaction was not excitement. Honestly, it didn’t seem too appetizing – and when he suggested that I try eating it with just a little salt, I was skeptical.

But I gave it a bite.

"Black Krim" tomatoes - courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/tombarta/1100221472/
"Black Krim" tomatoes - courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/tombarta/1100221472/

I could not believe the palette of flavors in this one, sublime tomato! It was richly flavorful in a way that no other tomato I’d ever tasted could compare with. Michael explained that “Black Krim” is an heirloom tomato that originally was brought to this country all the way from Russia. Heirloom vegetables are always open-pollinated varieties. This means that if the seeds produced from the plant are properly saved (and grown where they do not cross with other varieties), they will reproduce faithfully year after year.

I enjoy knowing that someone in the past loved the first “Black Krim” even more than I do, and saved the first seeds from this remarkable tomato. Over the years since then, many more people have saved seeds from this heirloom variety year after year, in many different gardens and places, bringing it eventually to my friend’s table.

The rest of that night, we sliced tomatoes, peppers, onions and tomatillos, squeezed limes and chopped cilantro. We made canned salsa and fresh salsa, salsa verde and chipotle salsa. We ate enough fresh tomatoes to fulfill my lifetime requirement of lycopene.

Remembering that evening, I’m always eager to grow heirloom tomatoes when spring rolls around – even in the years when I’ve only been able to grow them on a tiny apartment porch. This spring, I’ve been growing “Black Krim” and six other varieties of tomatoes from seed, which I started in early March. If you haven’t had the chance to start your own, don’t despair – Wasatch Community Gardens’ annual Plant Sale will be selling 42 heirloom tomato varieties this year. “Black Krim” is among them, but it’s just one of the many flavorful, unusual varieties that will satisfy your desire for something different and wonderful.

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