Tomatoes get a bad rap, people! There are a select few people in my life who understand what it means to cut a few fat slices of a sun-warmed tomato and slap it on a mayoed hunk of toast. That moment is bliss, but I get why tomatoes tend to be on the list of disliked foods: when they’re not good, they’re really bad. Don’t even get me started.
Ok, fine, but real quick. Too hard, too slimy, bad texture, flavourless, watery, sour, pallid, and gross. Full offence to off-season tomatoes. I said what I said. But it’s not anyone’s fault that the indoor-grown versions aren’t even close to their seasonal siblings.
So many regions just don’t have access to the kind of climate necessary to get the perfect ruby red (or orange, purple, yellow, or green, depending on your persuasion) nugget of tart, sweet, juicy deliciousness. Instead, most of us get stuck with the pale and mealy year-round indoor hothouse abominations. If you’re identifying with that sentiment, I send my deepest regrets. You deserve better. We all do.
Late summer is really when the magic happens, the eating, but late spring is when the finnicky little plants really get their groove on. It’s in the arrival of long days of high heat and bright sun that helps the fruit turn out more beautifully than in any other time of year. The seedlings can be started inside to sprout, then the soil stays hot overnight and it’s time to get the young stalks in the ground. You can actually lay them down flat with the top poking up out of the dirt. Tomato plants always grow toward the sun, so the orientation when they’re planted doesn’t have much to do with their success. Believe it or not, planting the wider stalks gets a larger root system going and contributes to the fruit receiving more nutrients as they grow.
Imagine the greatest tomato you’ve ever eaten. For me, it’s bigger than my fist. Deep red, almost into purple, and heavier than expected. Slices have more flesh than seeds and there’s no slimy, watery middle. Instead it’s dense, fairly firm, with flavour that somehow satisfies the sweet tooth and the savoury-umami-tart thing that I can’t get enough of. If I close my eyes, I can taste it.
Every year after making it through the winter, feeling the first warm afternoons and the sun staying high until late, I know it’s coming. The markets start opening and show off rhubarb, peas, and asparagus. Then the cherries, and berries start to arrive in early summer. The darker the pigment gets, the closer the promised land is. If you’re at a farmer’s market and there are tomatoes, ask to taste one. You’ll know when it’s time. When it is, buy as many as you think you can eat and please, please eat them all. Eat them in everything you can think of. Cook them if you must, season sparingly, and file it in your memory bank. They’re never around for long enough.
Yeah, they’re hard to grow. Farmers who arrive at markets with the goods are both magicians and scientists. They nurture a product that’s highly sought after and truly the prize of the summer harvest for growers and consumers. It’s too bad good tomatoes are never in a grocery store. People deserve to have access to the best of the best, but they’re just not made for the mass market. Markets, though, they often pop up where people can get to them. Producers lug their trailers into urban areas and bring their bounty to the masses. Usually they’re fairly priced and well worth the weekend morning excursion. Try to make the journey if you can swing it.
The elusive tomato season is coming. Do yourself a favour: eat one like an apple with a sprinkle of salt and change your own life.