Heirloom Tomatoes, Hurrah!
If you had 150 children, it would be hard for you to pick your favourite one, too. I’m guessing it would change, day-by-day, depending on moods and manners. It’s pretty much the same for Tim Noxon and Vicki Emlaw, Prince Edward County farmers and owners of Vicki’s Veggies, when it comes to tomatoes. It just depends when and how they’re eating them.
“If I'm just eating straight off the vine, I prefer White Currant,” says Noxon. “It's the sweetest variety ever. Small and white, it cracks soon after it comes off the vine and doesn't keep well.”
“If I'm going to have a caprese salad with company, I will want to have a Super Snow White (white tomato), Jaune de Charonnie (yellow), Jaune Flame (orange), Matina (red), Cuban SM (brown), Black Crick (black) and a Green Zebra (green tomato),” explains Emlaw, “because the lighter the colour of skin, the less acid they have in them, and the darker the skin, the more acid they have in them. So I like to have all the colours for the beauty of the salad, but all the acidity levels for the different flavours all at the same time.”
For sandwiches, Noxon recommends some of the larger, more acidic varieties, such as Black Krim or Morado. And when it comes to sauces, where else but Italy can one find the most flavourful tomato version? Italian Noir is a dark black, heavily acidic tomato that isn’t watery, so it makes a good, thick sauce. Just throw in plenty of basil, onions, garlic and your own magic ingredients and you’ve got a zinging taste of Italy.
Noxon and Emlaw started farming as a hobby 15 years ago and transformed one-sale-at-a-time into a huge full-time operation that covers 17 acres of Prince Edward County and produces close to 150 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, as well as plenty of other vegetables, including peppers, lettuce, eggplant, arugula, beans, carrots, collards, cucumbers, dandelion, garlic, garlic scapes, herbs, kale, leeks, Napa cabbage, nettles, onions, peas, potatoes, radishes, rapini, shallots, sorrel, spinach, Swiss chard, turnips and zucchini. Phew. They produce about 27,000 pounds of tomatoes annually. That’s equivalent in weight to a fighter jet.
The operation supplies more than 100 restaurants, including some of Toronto’s most celebrated such as Canoe, Scaramouche, Bucca's Bar & Grill, Mamakas, Richmond Station, Momofuku, Hopgoods Foodliner and Alo Restaurant. “Nota Bene's chef David Lee was the first chef in Toronto to purchase our heirloom tomatoes and we would overnight FedEx them at the time,” recalls Noxon. Now, the pair only delivers in Prince Edward County, but in Ottawa, the tomatoes are available through Wendy’s Mobile Market. “Some chefs love to shop ‘old school’ and will come to hand select (the tomatoes) themselves from me at Evergreen Brickworks Market,” says Noxon.
Every fall the couple hosts an Heirloom Hurrah Tomato Tasting and Vegetable Extravaganza, centered around a 48-foot long table, laden with tomato-tasting plates. The event attracted close to 2,000 visitors in 2015. They came from far and wide to sample exotic varieties such as Black Yum Yum, Dark Rose, Amazon Chocolate and Ozark Sunrise, to name just a few dark-skinned varieties. Others boast intriguing names such as Nebraska Wedding, Dancing with Smurfs and The Mortgage Lifter.
Pioneers brought varieties, such as Nebraska Wedding, from Minnesota to Nebraska by covered wagon in the late 1800s. Nebraskan brides were given the seed of this tomato as a wedding gift. Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter tomato allowed Marshall Cletis Byles to pay off his mortgage in the 1930s in his hometown of Logan, West Virginia, all on the back of the lowly tomato.
Byles' story is an unusual one: He owned a small repair shop at the bottom of a mountain, where trucks used to frequently overheat. The location of his shop generated a steady business as trucks ground to a hot halt on the mountain and had to roll back down for some much necessary radiator work. This is where he earned the nickname Radiator Charlie. Despite the prominent location of his shop, the Great Depression was looming and Byles was looking for other ways to keep afloat. So he turned to tomatoes.
Emlaw, who grew up on a dairy farm in Prince Edward County, caught the tomato bug in the year 2000 when a friend gave her eight varieties of heirloom tomato seeds. At the time she didn't even really like tomatoes very much. “But as the tomatoes matured there was a tiny one that was yellow and pear-shaped, another was big beautiful and brilliant orange; one was deep purple and so lobed and gnarled and looked like a brain, but tasted so good; one was green with yellow stripes and one was huge and pink and so juicy another was big and smooth and black. I fell in love more with the eye candy of it all. When I put them straight from the field into a basket or bowl, they were so beautiful it just made me want to eat this beauty,” recalls Emlaw.
She became obsessed. She joined an organization called Seeds of Diversity whereby home gardeners save seeds and trade for postage. “There were thousands of varieties to choose from and I wanted to try them all,” she remembers. “I was up to 350 varieties at one time, but it became a little too much work so I've had to narrow my focus to the best 150 varieties for our garden and climate.”
You are what you eat applies to plants as well. Especially nutrient-demanding tomatoes, which need rich, fertile soil to produce their very best fruit. “Catering to the needs of a tomato plant through proper nutrition is essential, but challenging,” explains Emlaw. “We test the soil and make amendments accordingly. We also test the plants’ tissues and saps and apply foliar sprays to give immediate corrections; this supplements the diet from the soil and helps bring the plant up to its prime condition. It can then produce a perfect tomato.
Emlaw and Noxon’s first date was spent canning tomatoes. It was a fitting way to start a relationship that now produces about 12 tonnes of tomatoes annually. “I still try new to me varieties every year and keep refining my collection,” says Emlaw.
“They are kind of like my children; you get to know all the special little things about how they grow and how they look and act in different situations and they all have their own special tastes too. I might not be able to identify them all with a blind taste test, but by look I can definitely tell all 150 apart.”
81 Morrison Point Rd., Milford, Ont.
Heirloom Hurrah Tomato Tasting - the fisrt Saturday and Sunday of September
Vicki's Panzanella (bread salad) Serves 4
¹/₂ large baguette cut into large chunks
olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme and rosemary to taste
Toss the chunks of baguette together with the other ingredients until well coated. Toast in oven at 350F and turn the croutons every few minutes until lightly golden brown on all sides. Set aside.
6 to 8 pounds of heirloom tomatoes, cut into chunks
1 red onion, cut into slivered wedges
¹/₄ to ¹/₂ pound of mozarella, cut into cubes
1 handful of fresh basil, coarsely chopped
12 pitted olives, optional
1 cup cucumber and/or pepper, chopped
Toss all of the ingredients together in a medium-sized mixing bowl and set aside.
²/₃ cup olive oil
1¹/₂ tablespoons balsamic vinegar
¹/₄ cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons honey
2 cloves of garlic
1 handful basil, coarsely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
To make the dressing, add all of the ingredients together in a food processor and blend. Just before serving, add dressing to the salad then toss in the croutons.