Heirloom produce, especially heirloom tomatoes, have developed quite a cachet in the local food movement. But what does it mean for a vegetable or fruit to be "heirloom"? And is heirloom really any better than other varieties? Let's take a look.
Definitions of "heirloom" plants vary, but two aspects are fairly standard:
1. The plants must be open-pollinated.
2. The plants must have been cultivated from at least before World War II.
When a plant is open-pollinated, it means you can save seeds from it and those seeds, when planted, will produce plants with nearly identical characteristics as the parent plant. That automatically eliminates hybrid varieties.
The pre-World War II requirement has to do with a major focus by commercial seed produces on developing hybrid varieties in the 1950s to the 1970s. Hybrids were owned by whoever developed them, and only the company that created them could distribute them to seed and plant retailers. Hybrids are aimed at commercial growers, and have been designed to produce more in less space, be resistant to common diseases, and be sturdy enough to ship long distances for the increasingly global food market. which was being created during those same years.
In fact, heirloom varieties still survive today mostly thanks to home gardeners who continued to plant varieties grown for years by their families. Gardeners saved seeds each year to use for the next year's garden.
With the recent rise of smaller scale farming, farmers markets, and the local food movement, heirloom varieties are being rediscovered. The main reason heirlooms have been saved over the years is because they have some unusual and desirable characteristic. Most commonly the unique trait is outstanding flavor, but some heirlooms also have dramatic and beautiful colors and shapes compared to their standardized hybrid cousins.
Another reason for current emphasis on heirloom vegetable, flower, and fruit varieties is an increasing concern about loss of biodiversity. For example, the Potato Association of America lists about 65 potato varieties for commercial farmers to choose from, and this is a lot more variation than you are likely to see in a typical grocery store produce section. In fact, there are literally hundreds of varieties of potatoes. Each offers a slightly different genetic combination.
When a produce variety ceases to exist, it's particular genetic variation is lost. The loss is important because that variation might have included resistance to a previously unknown disease, for instance. The fewer varieties in existence, the more vulnerable existing varieties are to new diseases, pests, and climate variations.
To make certain biodiversity is maintained, scientists have started their own seed saving banks. They work with both farmers and home gardeners to regularly replenish the freshness of the seeds they have in storage.
This combination of culinary and environmental reasons has brought heirloom varieties back to center stage, especially in the local food movement. Hopefully it gives you a good reason to try heirlooms and compare.
I suspect heirloom tomatoes have become the poster child for heirloom varieties mostly because the mass produced varieties have become so tasteless and bland, even during peak season when they are actually ripe. Most heirloom varieties can do better than that or people would have quit saving them long ago.
If you are interested in trying some heirloom varieties, the Farmers Markets and farm stands are the best places to look for them. Heirloom varieties are usually clearly identified.
If you are a gardener, just about any seed catalog you pick up now lists heirloom varieties. By learning how to save your own heirloom seeds, you will have fewer seeds to purchase next year.
To start saving seeds, there are several good books on the subject, or you can go to the Seed Savers Exchange website.
STUFFED HEIRLOOM TOMATOES
3-4 small potatoes (Full Bloom Farm, Lummi Island)
4 large heirloom tomatoes (firm is best) (Full Bloom Farm, Lummi Island)
1/2 lb lean ground beef (Second Wind Farm, Bellingham)
1 clove garlic, finely minced (Spring Frog Farm at Holistic Homestead, Everson)
1/4 cup chopped onion (Hopewell Farm, Everson)
1 Tbsp butter (homemade with cream from
1/2 tsp fresh thyme, minced (Full Bloom Farm, Lummi Island)
Salt to taste
(Optional) Minced fresh chives for garnish (Full Bloom Farm, Lummi Island)
Chop the potatoes coarsely, and put in a saucepan of boiling water to cover. (Potatoes can be peeled or not depending on your preference.) Cook for about 15 minutes, or until soft enough to mash.
While potatoes boil, cut out a small circle from the tops of tomatoes (2 to 2-1/2 inch diameter) and scoop out insides, leaving about a half inch wall on the outside. A melon baller can be a helpful tool for this job, though a spoon or grapefruit knife will work, too. Reserve the insides for another dish.
Put the ground beef in a skillet over medium high heat. When the meat starts to brown, add the chopped onion and minced garlic and reduce to medium. Continue cooking until meat is thoroughly browned. Remove from heat.
When potatoes are soft, remove from the heat, drain well, and mash, adding a tablespoon of butter. Potatoes should be a little drier than usual.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line a sheet pan with foil or parchment.
In a mixing bowl, stir together mashed potatoes and beef mixture. Add fresh thyme. Add salt to taste.
If hollowed tomatoes have any accumulated moisture in the bottom, blot with paper towel. Stuff tomatoes with the potato-beef mixture, mounding the stuffing a bit higher than the top of the tomatoes.
Place tomatoes onto prepared sheet pan and put into preheated oven. Bake for about 13-15 minutes, until the juices begin to run and the tops are just brown.
Garnish with minced fresh chives, if desired.
Note: If you have stuffing left over, you could add some water and milk, simmer for awhile, check the seasoning, and just like that you've made a soup!
You'll find Whatcom County foods at these stores and farms. Many outlets have seasonal hours. We recommend you call or check websites for current hours.
Acme Farms + Kitchen, 1313 N State Street, Bellingham
Appel Farms Cheese Shoppe, 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4996
Artisan Wine Gallery, 2072 Granger Way, Lummi Island; 360-758-2959
BelleWood Acres, 6140 Guide Meridian, Lynden; 360-318-7720
Bellingham Country Gardens (u-pick vegetables), 2838 East Kelly Road, Bellingham
Bellingham Farmers Market, Railroad at Chestnut; 360-647-2060
Boxx Berry Farm Store and u-pick, 6211 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-380-2699
Cloud Mountain Farm Nursery, 6906 Goodwin Road, Everson; 360-966-5859
Community Food Cooperative, 1220 N. Forest St. and 315 Westerly Road, Bellingham; 360-734-8158
Five Loaves Farm, 514 Liberty St., Lynden
Ferndale Public Market, Centennial Riverwalk, Ferndale; 360-410-7747
Grace Harbor Farms, 2347 Birch Bay Lynden Road, Custer; 360-366-4151
The Green Barn, 211 Birch Bay-Lynden Road, Lynden; 360-318-8869
Hopewell Farm, 3072 Massey Road, Everson; 360-927-8433
The Islander, 2106 S. Nugent Road, Lummi Island; 360-758-2190
Joe's Garden, 3110 Taylor Avenue, Bellingham, 360-671-7639
Lynden Farmers Market, Fourth and Front streets, Lynden
The Markets LLC, 1030 Lakeway, Bellingham; 8135 Birch Bay Square St., Blaine; 360-714-9797
Pleasant Valley Dairy, 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale; 360-366-5398
Red Barn Lavender Farm (egg CSA), 3106 Thornton Road, Ferndale; 360-393-7057
Small's Gardens, 6451 Northwest Road, Ferndale; 360-384-4637
Terra Organica, 1530 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham; 360-715-8020
Reach Whatcom Locavore columnist Nancy Ging at 360-758-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To follow her day- to-day locavore activities, go to Whatcom Locavore on Facebook or @whatcomlocavore on Twitter. For locavore menus, recipes and more resources, go to whatcomlocavore.com.