If you would like to provoke some really animated discussion in a group of gardeners, just ask for their idea of “the perfect tomato.” I can almost guarantee, if there are five gardeners in the room, they’ll provide you with at least SIX opinions! So what makes a tomato great? There are many characteristics to consider.
The perfect tomato should have superb flavor.
But here’s the kicker, what one person considers superb, another may consider inferior. I remember reading about the Black Plum tomato around 2002. Gardening friends, whom I greatly respected all reported that this tomato had wonderful flavor. I ordered some seed, growing it with great anticipation. It produced well. The small to medium sized plum shaped fruit were attractive. They looked inviting. When I tried the first one, I popped it in my mouth, bit down, and nearly spit it out. The flavor was as inferior, to me, as I had hoped it would be superior. After a number of attempts, I finally consigned my Black Plum tomato fruits to the sauce pot. What happened? Nothing, other than that my palette has a distinctive taste for tomatoes, and Black Plum falls outside my range of being “a good tomato.”
…what one person considers superb, another may consider inferior….
After trying Black Plum, I was a bit gun shy of black tomatoes, but the same gardening friends who recommended it to me insisted that I try Black Cherry. After a couple of years, I did. Wow! Black Cherry is wonderful! Now I get in trouble with the wife if I don’t grow this one every year. Black Cherry has a rich, fruity flavor, which my taste buds actually consider to be fruit.
Victory Seeds has a wonderful listing of old varieties developed by A.W. Livingston, over 100 years ago.
Do you like sweet, mild, acidic or tart tomatoes?
You see, the perfect tomato’s flavor varies from one person to the next. Most tomatoes sold in the store are rather mild (to put it kindly) in flavor. Many of the tomatoes popular around the 1940s and 50s were somewhat acidic in flavor. Many heirlooms which have recently gained much popularity are often quite sweet. Cherokee Purple is one of the most popular heirlooms, these days, with a sweet, yet complex flavor. What do I like? Well, for me, the best tomato flavor has a little bit of a bite to it. Think Rutgers, Marglobe or Sioux; all varieties which were extremely popular when I was a kid.
Question: What’s the best flavored tomato?
Answer: The one YOU like the most.
There are other factors which contribute to a tomato being “perfect.”
Production is important.
One of the things I have against Cherokee Purple, when grown in our extreme summer heat, is that one can count on about 6 tomatoes per plant, and that’s it. Other varieties may produce up to half a bushel of fruit in a season.
Keeping ability is important.
Some tomato varieties spoil very easily. I may grow them for their wonderful flavor, but the perfect tomato should keep, at least reasonably well, until I can eat it.
The skin is important.
Do thick skins bother you? They bother some people. Yet, a really thin skinned tomato may crack and spoil before one can pick it. Sioux has a thin skin. In our erratic weather it will sometimes split and spoil. Because I so dearly love its flavor, I kept growing it and figured out that I could pick it just as it started to turn color, letting it ripen in the kitchen, and it doesn’t split. If thick skins are not an issue for you, the perfect tomato for you might have a thick skin.
Color shouldn’t be important, but it is.
In 1983 I grew 20 varieties of tomatoes and tried doing taste tests with friends and neighbors. With eyes uncovered, a large red or pink beefsteak tomato would win out as #1, but when we covered folks’ eyes, A nondescript yellow called Sunray VF would win, hands down. Still, if you like tomato sauce, are you alright with yellow tomato sauce? What about other colors? If color matters to you, then consider it. In recent years breeders have released tomatoes with an amazing array of colors. Some gardeners are enchanted with the variety. Maybe the perfect tomato is always … just over the next hill.
Other factors which can be important is size of plant, growth habit, fruit size and special climate adaptations.
The best way to get the perfect tomato is to grow it yourself.
In recent years grocery stores are definitely doing better in their inventory of tomatoes, but if you want to find the absolutely best tomato for your tastes, you’ll probably have to grow a selection and start pursuing the characteristics most important to you, your needs and your palette.