Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Flavor puts heirloom veggies over the top

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Mark Israel of Query Mill Hill Farm looks for ripening heirloom tomatoes on his farm in Gaithersburg.
You say to-may-to, but Mark Israel is among the many who say Mule Team, Cherokee Purple and Granny Cantrell’s Jumbo Red — or any one of the varieties that full under the rubric of ‘‘heirloom” ... to-mah-to.

Pert little Czech ones that pack an acidic punch. Green ones named for their zebra-like stripes. Hulking pound-plus beefsteak ones that make mouths water. Thousands upon thousands of varieties, each with their own detailed history — oftentimes down to a name and address from decades long gone.

Like many heirloom initiates, all it took was that first time Israel sank his teeth into the juicy pink flesh of a Brandywine, which dates back to 1887.

That bite turned Israel’s taste buds forever finicky. Ten years later, he and his wife Judith Lesser are growing 49 kinds of heirloom tomatoes on 500 plants at the Query Mill Hill Farm in Gaithersburg, where they have lived for more than 20 years.

The refrain is so often the same from first-timers.

‘‘They say, ‘That’s the best I’ve ever eaten.’ People are longing for a tomato to taste like a tomato,” he said.

It’s an enthusiasm that’s growing in fields, gardens and kitchens across the country, where Old is quickly becoming the new New.

In Montgomery County, the heirloom craze has come as a groundswell the last few years, said Chuck Schuster, an educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension. At the dozen or so farmers markets around the county, he estimates that as many as 30 percent of the farmers are selling heirlooms.

‘‘We have a very intelligent community... and these are people looking for ways of being greener, of buying higher quality food,” he said. ‘‘Then they’re discovering how good they taste.”

Israel best explains what an heirloom is by explaining what it is not.

It is not the hybridized run-of-the-mill tomato you usually find at a supermarket. It is not bred for the thick, waxy skins that allow tomatoes to be shipped long distances. It is not bred to last longer on grocers’ shelves.

The bottom line is that it breeds true from generation to generation.

So they’re odd-looking and their yield is smaller and less reliable, but what heirlooms lack in pristine aesthetics, Israel said, they make up for in pure flavor.

Like the Stupice, the little Czech heirloom that packs a tangy punch, all good tomatoes have that special zing, Israel said.

‘‘You eat a modern tomato, and nothing happens inside your mouth,” he said.

Most importantly for Guy Semmes, it’s what’s for dinner.

‘‘You know, I like them all,” he said Monday as he was picking up his week’s supply of uber-veggies from Query Mill.

Semmes is one of 14 neighbors and friends that stop by Query Mill every week to grab a sackful of produce through what is a growing trend. In ‘‘Community Supported Agriculture,” customers go directly to the farms to buy their food.

Two hundred dollars gets Semmes and his wife Dana — the true tomato aficionado — a 20-week supply of summer lettuce, redskin potatoes, radishes and baby beet greens to go with their heirloom tomatoes.

‘‘It’s always a treat to see what you get, and to make your meal that night,” he said.

Community Supported Agriculture is driven in part by the demand to keep things local, which oftentimes leads consumers to the heirlooms’ histories, said Greg Douglass, of the University of Maryland.

Researching how to start an organic garden at his Ellicott City home in 2000, it wasn’t long before he was poring through 19th century gardening catalogs.

‘‘People like to connect with the past,” said Douglass, who has gotten so heady on heirlooms that the IT systems analyst has been dubbed the school’s in-house heirloom expert.

This year has been one of Query Mill’s oddest on record, Israel said. Start with this summer’s extreme dryness. Mix in unusual swings in temperature. Add to that ‘‘an absolute invasion” of flea beetles. Tack on droves of deer ‘‘driven crazy with the drought.”

Varieties from Russia — such as the Black Krim from Crimea — have fared best. Popular mainstays like the Mortgage Lifter and Cherokee Purple have also thrived.

But where the Food Network’s Web site lists 68 recipes using heirloom tomatoes — everything from grilled and stuffed to churned into a cold soup or a salsa — Israel will have none of it.

He takes his heirlooms simple and straight up: thick slices with a touch of salt — maybe with a dash of vinegar.

‘‘Truth is,” he said seriously, ‘‘I’m offended when someone says I want a tomato for my sandwich.”

’Tis the season

Get while the getting is good because the window for heirloom tomatoes is closing fast. Peak season typically starts at the end of July and runs through the end of this month, though it can last as deep as October. To learn more, visit