Summer started agreeably cold and wet. It ended miserably hot and dry. To a gardener, the dryness has some redemptive value: It concentrates the sugars in grapes, melons and, of greatest relevance to most of us, tomatoes.
When I traveled to the grand annual tomato-tasting event organized by Rutgers University recently, my hope was that the dry spell would result in memorably flavorful fruit. An unremitting deluge along the way made for a deeply unpleasant drive but also portended a watered-down experience.
The rain followed me all the way to the Snyder Research and Extension Farm in Pittstown, N.J. So we huddled under striped tents and sampled dozens of freshly picked varieties of tomatoes: slicers, romas, beefsteaks, cherries, hybrids, heirlooms – you name it.
It is a testament to the allure, the mythology, even, of this New World berry that hundreds of people shrugged off the weather and found a sunniness in the fruit itself.
But there was no getting away from the fact that it was a subpar growing season. It stayed wet in western Jersey, and the harvest’s flavor was on the bland side as a result. This was no fault of the skilled Rutgers growers: In their fields, the vines were vigorous, fruitful and free of the blights that visit most of us at home.
But as clouds often do, this one had its silver lining: Grape tomato varieties were uniformly good, retaining an intensity of flavor lost in the bigger fruit.
The taste of a tomato is a complicated affair. Within the fruit, there is a complex interplay of sugars, acids and volatile chemicals. And that’s just the objective component; for the tasters, the experience is wrapped up in memories, nostalgia and other subconscious associations, not to mention such tactile elements as texture and mouth feel.
Jack Rabin, associate director of Rutgers’ agricultural experiment stations, took me to the Snyder Farm offices, where six bins held as many different grape varieties bred and under review by his colleagues.
There wasn’t a bad one among them, but the second one I tasted, known simply as No. 11, was my clear favorite – loaded with complex flavor in an insipid year. I sneaked a couple more.
Rabin and I then hopped on a golf cart and made it to the muddy tomato fields. Taking out a sodden piece of paper, he deciphered the map on the damp sheet and located a section of the field whose vines were weighed down by the rain and by trusses of more red grape tomatoes.
I love this tomato, he said, giving me one to try. As I munched on it, he described it to a T: Sweet. Tart. Crunchy, but not rubbery.
If it tastes this good in a soggy year, what would it be like in a perfect one? Alas, we amateur gardeners might never know: It is a variety developed for commercial growers by a major seed company, Seminis, a vegetable seed brand of Monsanto, and known simply as Seminis 9137. It shows up, anonymously, in those plastic clamshells at the supermarket, proving perhaps that not all supermarket tomatoes are flavorless.
Carly Scaduto, a spokeswoman for Monsanto, said the company is considering making it available to consumers. Researchers are evaluating whether Seminis 9137, a variety developed for carefully controlled greenhouse cultivation, will perform well outdoors in gardens and climates across the United States, she said.
If it is distributed to retailers, it won’t be before 2015, and it probably would have a more engaging name than Seminis 9137.
If this does make it to the home gardener, they’ll work on the naming strategy, she said.
OK, so if we can’t get Seminis 9137, what about Rutgers No. 11, or the other grape varieties under development by Rabin’s colleagues? There are no promises there, either.
They’re early selections, he said. They may never be released. Flavor is not the chief criterion for a commercial variety; it has to ship without bruising, it has to yield well, it can’t split, it has to ripen at a certain time and so on.
Don’t worry: Rabin says most small-fruited varieties hold the promise of superiority. Sungold is a classic cherry tomato that is pretty foolproof – sweet, tangy and fruity – and currant and grape tomatoes also tend to be inherently better.
They’re just born that way, he said. Maybe the small-fruited varieties are putting the same amount of energy into fewer pounds of tomatoes, he said.
But this is more than just speculation. He took a dozen varieties grown at the Snyder Farm and analyzed them in the laboratory. The three grape tomatoes scored highest in three key areas: in a volatile compound named Furaneol; in Brix, a measure of sugar content, and in total acidity.
The highest-scoring was Seminis 9137, but two consumer grape varieties – Jolly Elf and Smarty – were close behind. In fact, Jolly Elf scored the highest for Furaneol, a compound that recalls the pleasant aroma of a ripe strawberry.
So, when you’re compiling your tomato variety lists this winter, include one or two grape tomatoes among them. I have grown or tasted Juliet, Napa and Yellow Pear and recommend them all. I would also consider some newer varieties that I haven’t tried but that have won in national garden trials, namely Sugary Hybrid and Solid Gold.
But if Seminis 9137 makes it to the gardener and under a fancy name, I’ll let you know.