Back in the spring I poured over catalogs. I sprouted and watered and killed many a seedling. I stared at young plants for nearly half an hour, pondering which would best grow in my garden. I tried to conjure up their future fruit in my mind, with only a name to guide me: Sungold, Brandywine, Copia.
My husband was adamant -- we would have tomatoes! Lots of tomatoes. There really was nothing quite as worthwhile in a garden as a tomato, he claimed. That and the savings! Oh the savings. Heirlooms by the pound are pricey indeed. We didn't have much space but it would have to do. Yes, growing them in high density was the only way. Blight be damned!
So we grew green varietals, like the Green Zebra and Green Cherokees shown here. And we grew cherry tomatoes -- Matt's Wild have rave reviews, so we tried a few from seed. We grew some standard red ones, like Rose de Berne and Watermelon Beefsteak, and a mixed bag of heirlooms. But my favorite by far was Valencia.
I picked the varietal randomly, after staring at names on wooden stakes for twenty minutes. It was late May and our wedding anniversary, and we were out to lunch to celebrate. On the way, we passed a stand with plants. To my husband's chagrin, I cannot walk by plants in spring without buying just one or two. Nevermind the lunch ahead, the long car ride home, or the overnight stay in a hotel room: the plants were coming with us. And after mulling the options, I picked Valencia on a whim.
The first tomato came early, way back in July. It grew until it was round and large, shaped exactly like a pumpkin. When the deep orange colour came through, the transformation from tomato to squash was complete. An early riser, it was already ripe.
I was home alone and carried that single tomato upstairs like a baby bird, admiring its shape and color. I ate half of it fresh for dinner with mozzarella and basil. The next night, when I was stuck alone another day thanks to a cancelled flight, I consoled myself with the joy that the second half would not go to waste. Instead, into the pot it went with a bay leaf, some dried thyme and oregano. The sauce came out sweet and orange. It was my first foray into single varietal tomato sauce, and it was a success.
Sure -- I'd made delicious homemade sauces from vine ripened tomatoes bought from the store. But this was different. I was growing the plants, making the resulting fruit seem rare and precious. Cooking was almost blasphemy.
But this first foray inspired me. And when we went peach picking in August, and discovered they also had heirloom tomatoes, I went out of my way to get a good variety. When we got home I was adamant: we should sort, then chop and reduce and can. We should honour each tomato's essence by making single varietal sauces.
At first this seemed silly, but the results were exciting. We made spicy arrabbiata with San Marzanos. We made one with Brandywine, using a few big specimens. And we made more sweet Valencia sauce.
All this growing and picking and canning different varietals got me curious about where these tomatoes came from. Some basic research put Valencia's origins in Maine. The story goes that a family saved this seed for generations.
Further digging placed its ancestry in commercial varieties from the 1940s. Going backwards in time, it could trace roots to Sunray, then Jubilee, who in turn came from a Tangerine and Rutgers cross. As the name implies, Valencia has taken more if its visible characteristics from it's Tangerine side than from Rutgers. Developed by the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, Rutgers first appeared in 1928. It has an ancestor with a tomato linked to Campbell's Soup -- a pioneer in packaged foods first on the scene in 1869. To think my own plantings share this storied history! Tomato ancestry is just as exciting as tracing a family's metaphorical tree. It's easy to imagine the little tomato trees stretching back through time.
In contrast, Valencia's green cousins above were only developed in the 1980s and 90s. Yet their names are already common. Another friend was growing Green Zebras in her garden this summer. How quickly seed spreads to the four corners of the globe! The tomato's diversity in shape, colour and taste is extraordinary and enticing. It's not surprising we allocate so much space in our gardens to try out a few new types -- whether they're a new cross or they're only new to us.
My tomatoes march on, and week by week they produce more fruit than we can handle, particularly in combination with our farm share. My husband has taken to eating a sliced tomato every morning for breakfast with labne on toast. And I've taken to making more and more tomato sauce.
The only things that will stop this flow are the blight and the frost. I've been reading Michael Pollan's early book, Second Nature, this summer and he warned of blight in those pages. I was cocky, and didn't believe such a tragedy could grace my green stalks. But just last week I noticed yellowing and spotting leaves. My father claimed the tomatoes lacked nutrients, but thanks to Pollan I knew better. This was a fungal blight. The only action was to remove as many infected leaves as possible, and fast. Since then I've been watering the ground rather than spraying the beds. This strategy has slowed, though not halted, the blight's progress.
But frost too can not be halted. The days are shortening, and my garden is showing the strain. The bean leaves are yellowing, as are the optimistic watermelon's many fronds. With the equinox right around the corner, this much is clear: my tomato days are numbered. Better to make as much tomato sauce as possible while the bounty lasts
Simple, Single Varietal Tomato Sauce from Scratch
Ideally, start with a single tomato varietal. But if you don't have enough of one type of tomato, this recipe will still work just fine.
4-5 medium tomatoes
1 medium onion
2-3 cloves of garlic, diced
Some butter and/or olive oil
2-3 bay leaves
2 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
2 sprigs of fresh oregano or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 sprig of fresh sage or 1/4 teaspoon dried
1 sprig of fresh rosemary or 1/4 teaspoon dried
dash of chilli flakes (optional)
salt and pepper
1. Chop up your onion. Put a pan on the stove and turn it up to medium heat. Put in about half a tablespoon of butter or olive oil. Let this heat up, then add the onions. Cook for about five minutes until the onions start to brown, then add the diced garlic and herbs and cook for another minute. If you're using the chilli flakes, you can either put them in the oil before you add the onions, or add them now.
2. While the onions are cooking, cut up your tomatoes into one-inch chunks. If they're bigger that's fine too: it will just take a little longer for them to cook down. Once the garlic has cooked for about a minute, add the tomatoes to the pan. Add some more olive oil, remembering the joyous and rigourous mediterranean diet findings. Add some salt and pepper
3. Let the sauce cook over medium heat uncovered for about 15 minutes, allowing the tomatoes to break down. If you need to, add a tablespoon of water here and there to keep the sauce from burning, but this should be unnecessary unless your tomatoes lack water. If I have some open, I'll add a splash of red wine and then serve that wine for dinner. If the sauce is too acidic, I'll also add a teaspoon of sugar; but if your tomatoes are ripe, this is unnecessary. Once the sauce has reduced, turn down the heat to low until you're ready to serve it. The longer you cook the sauce (without burning it!) the sweeter, more concentrated and more complex the flavor.
4. Serve with pasta that you cooked once the sauce started simmering. Pick out the big herbs if you used fresh leaves, particularly the bay leaves. Enjoy tasting tomato sauce from one, unique tomato varietal while you marvel at nature's diversity.