Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

Cultivating a local taste for tomatoes

Ask Jim Weaver, chef-owner of Tre Piani in Princeton and director of the central NJ chapter of Slow Food, what he thinks a tomato ideally should taste like, and his answer is simple but hardly simplistic: “Well, tomato.”

Genuine tomato flavor – particularly that heavenly blend of acids and sugars long-equated with New Jersey’s tomatoes – is on a lot of people’s minds this month.

Last Wednesday, Rutgers University’s Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Bridgeton invited professional chefs to “rediscover the Jersey tomato” at a blind tasting of about three dozen varieties.

In conjunction with the northern New Jersey chapter of Slow Food, the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morris Township hosted a “Tomato Day” last Sunday that included a tomato walk with a Rutgers vegetable specialist and sessions on how to save tomato seeds and how to cook with tomatoes.

On Aug. 29, the Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station is holding its 17th annual “Great Tomato Tasting” of more than 80 varieties for chefs, farmers and the general public at the Snyder Research and Extension Farm in Pittstown.

Sam Piazza of Piazza Farms and Greenhouses in Phillipsburg plans to attend that tasting “just to see what the public would be interested in,” he said. Throughout the season, however, farmers continually make their own assessments. Keeping notes on how well vines produce and the quality of their fruit is all part of the behind-the-scenes work that the grocery shopper looking for a few tomatoes for a salad or sauce probably never considers, said Gary Donaldson of Donaldson Farms in Mansfield Township.

“People want flavor,” he said. “They’re tired of the bland, pink-looking baseballs that they get in the wintertime. The only way you can get that is picking it red off the vine.”

Over the past three decades, the notion of what constitutes a true Jersey tomato has been hotly debated in gourmet kitchens and grocery aisles, on the farm and in the lab. Once upon a time, people ate locally produced field-grown tomatoes – locally bred to thrive in local growing conditions – only in season, that is, from about the middle of July through October. But advances in refrigeration and cross-country transport brought tomatoes from remote states and south of the border to New Jersey tables year ’round. Or at least they looked like tomatoes.

Catering to the demands of large-scale commercial growers, seed companies began phasing out production of once-prized varieties. Many farmers had no choice but to plant what the seed companies produced. Tomatoes were still being grown in New Jersey, but they were varieties that had been bred to be grown in California and Florida, picked green, shipped cross-country, and ripened with ethylene gas. Even when locally produced and left to mature on the vine, those tomatoes just didn’t taste like, well, tomato.

“Consumers were fooled. But they went back and bought more because there was nothing else available,” said Tom Orton, an extension specialist with the Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Bridgeton and a professor of plant science.

Thanks to the rediscovery of heirloom varieties, true tomato flavor made a comeback on high-end restaurant tables and at certain farmers’ and specialty markets where customers could be convinced that a misshapen, oddly colored tomato could taste better than a perfectly round scarlet red one. But that heirloom taste comes at a hefty price.

“We’ve been disappointed in the practicality of those things,” said Peter Nitzsche, an agricultural agent with the Rutgers Agricultural Extension of Morris County, who led last Sunday’s tomato walk at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum.

“Heirlooms carry a lot of baggage in terms of modern production practices,” said Orton. The plants are difficult to handle because they can grow up to 12 feet high. In addition, they don’t yield as many tomatoes as hybrid varieties do, and their fruit is usually larger, softer, and more irregularly shaped than hybrids. Unlike many hybrid varieties, which can be piled high in bins, harvested heirloom tomatoes have to be placed in one-layer trays so the fruit doesn’t bruise. That kind of extra care requires more hand labor, which translates into higher prices.

“Production is low. That’s why the heirlooms are so expensive. They have a tendency to split, and a lot of them never make it to the sales table,” said Donaldson. “Heirlooms are great for roadside markets and high-end restaurants. Local supermarket buyers, you show them an heirloom and they won’t buy it,” said Orton.

Using conventional breeding techniques, Orton is trying to marry the fine flavor and texture of heirloom tomatoes with the farmer-friendly growing and shipping characteristics associated with hybrids. The objective of his 18-month-old breeding program is “to develop tomatoes that are earlier maturing and have a combination of consumer and production attributes, a balance of those two,” he said. Ultimately, he hopes to develop open-pollinated varieties that don’t require the tedious hand labor needed to produce hybrid seeds. That work typically is farmed out abroad where labor is inexpensive-an “unsustainable” option, according to Orton.

How soon is Orton likely to reach his goal?

“It’s hard to predict. If we’re lucky, maybe three or four years,” he said. In the meantime, he added, Rutgers is exploring the possibility of extending the local tomato production season with greenhouses fueled by sustainable alternative energy sources. Overseen by David Specca, who comes from a south Jersey farming family and still operates a small U-pick business, the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station’s one-acre EcoComplex research greenhouse outside Columbus in Burlington County is fueled by landfill gases. From November through July, the greenhouse produced about 100 to 200 pounds of vine-ripened tomatoes a week, said Specca. To offset expenses, most of them were sold at farmers’ markets in Stockton and to the Tre Piani restaurant. Specca hopes the facility eventually will be used as a training site for growers who want to set up their own environmentally friendly greenhouses.

“The technology is there. We can do it now. It’s investment of capital. We need the private sector to step up,” said Orton.

Until such long-range projects reach fruition, Rutgers plant scientists are counting on the reintroduction of old-fashioned locally bred hybrids, such as Ramapo, to fill the need for flavorful tomatoes with better production qualities than heirloom types.

“The vegetable growers funded us to look at the older hybrids to see what would be good for roadside sale,” said Wes Kline, a vegetable specialist with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cumberland County. The variety trial culminated in last Wednesday’s tasting in Bridgeton, which also included several strains of the Rutgers tomato and such home garden favorites as Better Boy, Early Girl, and Supersonic.

The Experiment Station is having three pounds of Ramapo seed produced in Israel. “It’s very expensive to get small lots of seed produced. We only want three because we don’t want to get into commercially selling seed. We’re just trying to demonstrate the demand,” explained Kline. His objective is to entice commercial seed producers to once again offer Ramapo, “a true Jersey tomato.”

Jim Weaver counted the Ramapo among his top five favorites at last Wednesday’s tasting. Perhaps because of the recent rains, however, “not one of them had an in-your-face intensity. But I’d take that over a hothouse, gassed tomato any time,” he said.

Pre-harvest rains dilute both the acids and sugars in the fruit, explained Orton. But for most of this season, growing conditions have been good. “Heat and humidity is not a good combination. The humidity lays on top of the fruit and causes circular cracking around the stem,” said Piazza. “I would like to see 80 to 85 degrees with low humidity. What feels good for you, feels good for the plants.”

Although growers and scientists are preoccupied with varietal differences, most consumers don’t buy tomatoes by variety. “They want a ripe tomato in a size that they can make one slice and it covers the bread-as long as the varieties we put out have that good Jersey flavor,” said Piazza.

“In some of the other regions in the country there’s no acid to the tomatoes. That’s one of the things that makes the flavor of ours unique. It’s not bland. It’s got some excitement to it,” said Nitzsche.

Acidity is also a crucial consideration in canning. “You can can any tomato,” said David C. Felton, executive chef at the Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster, who delivered a presentation on canning at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum. “The real question is the acidity level. Some tomatoes are sweeter than others. You need a certain level of acidity to prevent bacterial growth,” he said. To play it safe, he adds a splash of vinegar or lemon juice to his tomatoes when putting them up. “Or you can use canning salt, which is salt with citric acid,” he said.

Felton uses his own-grown heirlooms and various hybrids from a farm two miles from his restaurant in his tomato dishes. “The best are always the ones you grow yourself, regardless of if they’re heirlooms or not,” said Felton. “I’m a believer in enjoying things when they’re in season.” Although canning is a way to stretch the local harvest, “it’s not the same as eating it fresh,” he said.

“If you go to roadside markets and higher end markets that feature locally grown and vine-ripened tomatoes, you’ll do just fine,” said Orton.

“People should do their own tasting,” said Donaldson. “There are a lot of different varieties out there, and people have their own favorites. They should try the different ones and see what they like.” Now until frost, there will certainly be plenty of opportunities to do so.