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Retro tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes are varieties that have been around for more than 50 years and have come back strong in recent years.



Antiques and produce aren't usually uttered in the same sentence, unless you're talking about heirloom tomatoes. They're varieties that have been around for more than 50 years, and have come back strong in recent years. Heirloom tomatoes began to thrive especially after the end of the Cold War, which sent many of the most popular seeds from Russia and other Eastern European countries to the West.

Colorful varieties reflect their heritage, with names like Black Krim and Anna Russian. Taking a chance on this produce takes a little courage--they can look a little funky, but they offer shoppers something different and very special.

"They're not uniform," said farmer Jim Durst. "They taste really good, come in every color and shape you could imagine and are a feast for the eyes as well as the palate when you're eating them."

Jim and his wife Deborah farm in Esparto, Yolo County, which for generations has been a hotbed for some of the nation's best tomatoes. He planted his first heirloom tomatoes about 20 years ago, in search of the best-tasting produce to sell to specialty markets. His plan worked, and he grows and ships more than a half million pounds of heirloom tomatoes across the country, fulfilling a personal quest for taste.

Heirlooms are commanding more shelf space at supermarkets and are a seasonal staple at finer restaurants throughout California. Chefs love their color and the explosion of true tomato flavor.

"People eat visually," said Gene Moana, executive chef of Lucca Restaurant in Sacramento. "It just so happens that when you shop for the best product available, it becomes easy math: It's one plus one. If it looks great and tastes great, it's going to be great."


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