Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Farm Bulletin: Of Tomatoes and Green Shoulders

Followers of Good Stuff NW know that I am a dedicated fan of the Astiana tomatoes grown by Anthony and Carol Boutard at Ayers Creek Farm. They are my family's sauce tomato, and this year I'm planning on roasting upward of 200 pounds of them to last us through the winter. Below, Anthony outlines just a few of the reasons I love them so.

Astiana is our cooking tomato derived from a Po River Valley tomato landrace of northern Italy. The fruits are large, usually green-shouldered, pear-shaped and pleated to varying degrees. A landrace is a population of fruits, vegetables or livestock that is shaped by the environment and culture of the region to which it belongs. More broadly construed than a simple catalogue variety, representatives of the landrace will vary from village to village, garden to garden, plant to plant, but they have similar qualities. In their natal valley, these tomatoes were selected for the quality of their flavor and texture after their encounter with the stove, and not for the salad plate.

We never use the word heirloom in reference to the crops we grow. We avoid the term as it coveys the idea of something not for daily use, delicate teacups for special occasions and their ilk. Our goal is to grow everyday food. Also, the honorific "heirloom" is merely defined as named varieties that have been around for at least 25 years without regard to quality or link to the land. A callow, boring and not very useful definition, up there with the silly term ancient grains. We work hard and take great care to produce fresh grains and legumes every year, and bridle at the thought that people describe them as ancient, not fresh and flavorful. If you want ancient, the bulk bin of the grocery is a good source for ancient beans and grains that don't cook up quite right.

Seeds are living plants, reshaped by their cultivators and the environment year after year, and landrace is the better term. It recognizes that living organisms are constantly adapting to changes in environments, cultures, and cultivators. The idea of a precious variety frozen in time may have a romantic pull, but the competent cultivator works to observe and guide the genetics of the crop.

Astiana, as we have named it, is our own tomato. It is the result of a decade of reselection of traits that two of us have mapped out in what we call a "design brief." We are, in effect, sheepdogs herding a milling bunch of traits. The most distinct and important trait of our tomato is its persistent green shoulders. This is an ancestral trait in tomatoes that modern breeders have long selected against because in the market they are seen as not yet ripe. It is a visual imperfection because people have long associated pure red fruit as ripe. Nonetheless, the green shoulders are closely linked to elevated flavor and recently some breeders have been looking to reincorporate this gene complex into their breeding populations. A good cooking or culinary tomato has high acidity as well as a high level of sugars and pectins. For a salad tomato, pectins are undesirable because in the raw fruit they mask certain flavors, and when dressed with vinegar or lemon juice, high acidity is not so important.

The large, blocky shape of the Astiana holds the field heat much longer than the smaller pear types favored further south in Italy and in the U.S. The ample body below the lovely green shoulders stays warm after sundown, allowing it to ripen and develop its intense flavor even during the short days followed by long, cool, late summer nights typical of the Po and Willamette Valleys, both sharing a perch on the 45th parallel. The plump, pear shape is a functional trait.

As a sauce tomato, we want a fruit with a high solid content, a relatively dry fruit. For seed production, we favor fruits with a dry locular or seed cavities. When you slice into the fruit, there is often air around the seeds. Acceptance of this trait carries some risk because if there is an opening to the outside environment, one of the cavities may mold.

In addition to the traits described above, there are a few other qualities we have selected as part of our breeding population. We include plants that are very late ripening, well into October if the rains hold off. A long counter life is another desirable quality. We have held them on the counter for more than five weeks without the slightest loss of quality, in fact they improve over that time. Disease resistance in an important consideration. Flavor is paramount, though. Every tomato is cooked and tasted before its seeds go from the cutting board to the seed jar. We want a good culinary tomato, not a slicer. It is superb as a dried fruit, as well.

So as you prepare your tomatoes, whether it is this weekend or sometime in October, you will have this mental map of how we approach the fruit. And if you hit a mold locular cavity, know that it is the nature of the beast, a trade-off we accept in our quest for a good sauce tomato.

As a bit of trivia, the tomato Gretl drops in the market of Salzburg is almost identical to the Astiana in size, shape and pleating, though it lacks the lovely green shoulder. The Sound of Music was filmed on location in the summer of 1964, providing a historical reference for this style of tomato that ranges up into Austria. If we had made the connection earlier, we might have been tempted to call our tomato 'Gretl'. (Not really, the green shoulders are missing in the Salzburg rendition.)

NOTE: Here's my technique for roasting these luscious beauties. Or check out the Boutard's recipe for tomato sauce.

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For those interested in obtaining some of these seasonal beauties, Anthony has sent this additional note on Monday, Sept. 5:

"For those who find it hard to travel west to Ayers Creek on the weekends, Rubinette Produce will order 20-pound lugs of Astianas from us upon request. Rubinette will charge $42 per lug if paid by credit card, or $40 by cash/check. Place your order by e-mailing Josh Alsberg, the owner of Rubinette. He will need your order by Wednesday afternoon. He will get his order in to us Wednesday evening so we can harvest and pack the tomatoes for delivery Friday. The tomatoes will be available for a few weeks, weather permitting."

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