Heirloom produce brings diversity to the table, and put us in touch with traditional foods that have been nurtured by farmers for centuries. Eatwell Farm’s Nigel Walker and chef Bryant Terry explore the value of heirloom varieties.
What is an heirloom tomato?
Nigel Walker: Everybody asks me that. Heirloom seeds are brought from countries all over the world. Their seeds have been saved and selected. They’re old varieties that tend to have thinner skins. They don’t travel like your supermarket tomato would; they don’t bounce down the road. They’re delicate varieties that people have nurtured in their gardens and passed the seeds down from generation to generation.
Bryant Terry: When I was growing up, I knew about maybe three or four varieties of tomatoes because my grandfather had an organic garden. But I had no idea that there were hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes, until I started delving more deeply into this work. I love going to the farmers market and seeing these oddly colored and shaped tomatoes—yellow, green, orange, striped, polka dot. Heirloom tomatoes are a great way to start conversations with people about the need for biodiversity.
Why should we preserve heirlooms?
Bryant Terry: When we talk about heirloom varieties, we’re talking about reclaiming many of the lost varieties that we might have seen decades or centuries ago. Heirloom varieties are grown by farmers and local producers who care about giving consumers not only healthy food, but also beautiful, interesting, diverse food varieties.
It’s important to preserve heirloom varieties because they’re a part of our heritage and culture, and that means something different in different parts of the world. If we’re talking about Southern India, that might mean the hundreds of varieties of basmati rice. If we’re talking about different parts of the United States, that might mean multiple varieties of apples. This diversity is a part of our culture. It’s part of our history. When we lose diverse variety in our foods, we’re losing a part of ourselves.
One way to get heirloom varieties is going to farmers markets. Many of the farmers trade seeds from people who care about maintaining or proliferating biodiversity. They give us the opportunity to experience these unique foods.
What is saving seed?
Nigel Walker: We save seeds from the tomatoes that taste good and do well on the farm. Saving seed is something that farmers have done ever since people started growing and domesticating crops. When you grow a crop, you walk down the rows and look for the ones that are doing well. In these tomato fields, I will walk down a row and see a plant that’s got more fruits on it than others. I will then check it for splits and diseases. If it’s doing okay, I’ll tag it, so we don’t pick that fruit. When all the fruit is ripe, we’ll come back and actually taste it. The real test is, does it taste good? If it doesn’t, we’ll just pull the tags off. But if it is good, if it has good yield, good taste, good resistance to cracking and disease—all the kind of things we’re looking for—then we will save the seed.
What do heirloom tomatoes taste like?
Nigel Walker: People always ask me at the market which ones taste good, and I say, well, they all taste different. There’s a whole gamut of flavors. At the farmers market, we cut up tomatoes for people to taste, and they seem to be amazed by the variety. They all taste good, but they all taste really different. It’s something you can’t really describe to somebody, so I generally say, just try them. It’s something to be experienced on your own.More: Agriculture, Bryant Terry, Cooking and Eating, Environmental Issues, Farm to Fork, Food Culture, Fruits and Vegetables, Nigel Walker, Sustainable Farming