In the dead of winter when grocery stores offer flavorless, hard tomatoes at astronomical prices, I found a package of five large, luscious black tomatoes for 49 cents today.
They taste wonderful! Like the black tomatoes that come from my garden every summer, they’re full of nuances of merlot, salt and citrus, with robust, tangy firmness.
I’ve been growing various black varieties such as ‘Purple Calabash’, ‘Black Prince’ and ‘Black Krim’ for 20 years, ever since I tasted the first one at an heirloom tomato fair in Texas.
I couldn't believe my good luck in finding this package of five black tomatoes for 49 cents at the grocery store in February!
Nearly all black tomatoes come from the Crimean peninsula in the Ukraine, where they’ve been favorites of the locals for more than a century. Hot summers there built pigment and fruit sugars that turn flesh and skin dark shades of mahogany, chestnut, bronze and deep purple. That’s why black tomatoes do well in southern states with torrid summers. They taste good up North, too, but colors are paler.
I grew this 'Purple Calabash' tomato in Texas where the long days of sun and heat build the best colors. Northern-grown ones taste as good, but they aren't as vividly colored.
One summer, I grew enough ‘Southern Night’ determinate black tomatoes so that I was able to save over two pounds of seeds. I gave them to Dr. Jerry Parsons of Texas A&M University (TAMU) for trialing. The idea was to see how well black tomatoes grew in the Winter Garden area of South Texas, near the Mexican border, where commercial growers produce nearly 50 percent of the tomatoes found in stores and restaurants.
Jerry used the seed to plant two acres of the tomatoes at the TAMU trial fields in Uvalde, TX. After the crop was harvested (determinates bear all their fruit within a 2-4 week period), he invited two dozen commercial tomato growers to view and taste the black fruits. He wanted them to see the commercial value of a new crop.
All of the men invited loved the flavor. Some raved about it. But, everyone declined seeds, because they said they couldn’t sell a black tomato. The consumer would be put off by the green and black interior, thinking it was rotten, and the tomatoes were not consistent enough in size to pack easily in shipping cartons.
Obviously, the observations of those growers that June day in 1997 still hold true. I first saw the black tomatoes I bought today last August in stores. They were selling for $2.95 a five-pack. Now they’re almost being given away. Draw your own conclusions.
Black tomatoes possess a multitude of flavors, plus the usual tang of homegrown ones. They can be compared to fine wines in that their flavors are subtle, numerous and surprising, at times.
I think it’s sad that people do not experience the exquisite flavors inside black tomato varieties. We gardeners can. Order some seeds today and grow a plant or two in your garden. You’ll be delighted with the multi-layered flavor in each bite.
Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.