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Past Perfect

September 10, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

While the California commercial tomato industry searches for the tomatoes of the future, many chefs, home gardeners and farmers market shoppers are looking to the past.

Heirloom tomatoes--old varieties with names like Bragger, Arkansas Traveler, Oxheart Giantissimo and Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter--may be impractical for growing on a large scale, but they deliver flavor and a link to previous generations.

Lore Caulfield grows 26 kinds of heirloom tomatoes in addition to assorted herbs on two acres in Camarillo. She's been selling them at farmers markets for the last five years.

"My absolute favorites are Goldies, that's just such a good tomato," she says. "After that it would be a toss-up between Cherokee Purple and Green Zebra. I'm also very fond of a tomato I've been growing for three years now called Castrale.

"I'm told it's Alice Waters' favorite tomato for her restaurant. It's so complete and perfect, sometimes I feel like it's salted already. It's huge and beautiful."

At Hortus nursery in Pasadena, after only three years of offering hybrid tomatoes, they're already up to 75 varieties.

"We started off a little timidly, thinking that because a lot of the modern hybrids are bred for reasons other than flavor, these might be of interest," says owner Gary Jones. "They were such an immediate hit that we decided yes, there was a market."

This year the nursery held its first tomato tasting. Of the more than 50 entries, the best all-around tomato was voted to be the Black Krim, a Russian heirloom described as having "velvety texture and sweet flavor." The best cherry tomato was Camp Joy, with Sweet 100 coming close behind. The most commonly grown was Brandywine.

In many cases, these were once commercially grown varieties that fell out of favor.

"You can't make a lot of money on them in the first place," Caulfield says. "They just don't give that much fruit. I have 1,200 plants. If I had 1,200 hybrid tomato plants, I'd have truckloads of tomatoes.

"And they're a big pain. From the time you pick them, they have to be taken to market immediately. They have a shelf life of maybe three days. They're subject to all kinds of diseases. And they have a short season too.

"Why do I keep growing them? On the practical side, I don't like competing with the big guys. I only have two acres, so I have to do something they don't want to do.

"That, and I love them. Somehow I'm always doing things that I really love to do and the money is secondary, unfortunately. One of these days I'll wise up."

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