Today we have 107 local items. Instead of a steadily increasing number of local items, we find our selves with fewer. Although fluctuations are not surprising, we do know that our menu is diminished by the recent short heat wave and the one that hits us today will have devastating effects. While most of the US is already experiencing record high temperatures for the month of June, we have only slightly been affected so far. Even only two or three days of high heat last week ended our local strawberries and hurt our local raspberries. I feel for the farmers and farm workers who work so many hours in this heat. Amy Hepworth told us today that she pulls the workers out of the fields during the higher mid-day temperatures.
From coast to coast, crops in general will suffer. If there is enough and not too much rain, (not enough is likeliest), some crops will probably fare pretty well. Peaches and other stone fruit and local watermelons come to mind. Other crops may get a slightly earlier start to their season; most crops have started about when we have expected them so far this year. We have been enjoying local tomatoes for the last few weeks, but we don't have higher temperatures to thank for them.
So far we have enjoyed heirloom tomatoes from Farmdale Organics and Riverview Organics, members of Lancaster Family Farm Cooperative of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We have enjoyed red tomatoes from Plum Hill Organics, also of Lancaster, and from Hepworth Farms in Milton, New York. We have not had this early start of the local tomato season because of the high heat, though. They were planted earlier than would ordinarily be considered safe from late spring cold temperatures, protected from the weather by various temporary shelters. They include high tunnels, cold frames, hot beds and other housings. These tomatoes come with a high materials cost, and greater labor overhead, are very expensive, but many members have told me that they were worth it.
Most folks know by now never to refrigerate tomatoes. Tomatoes produce a flavor enzyme as it ripens.When tomatoes are stored below 55 degrees the enzyme stops producing flavor (permanently). The longer the tomato is stored in the cold the more the flavor will degrade. The water inside a cold tomato may expand, causing individual cells of the tomatoes to burst. The tomato may still look good but will be mealy when you bite it. I remember hating most of the tomatoes from California that I ate, and how boring they were compared to New York and New Jersey tomatoes. When visiting farms in California several years ago, I ate a California tomato straight from the field (close your eyes Amy Hepworth), and it may have been one of the best tomatoes I have ever eaten.
I learned today from the New York Times, that there is another factor that has contributed to crummy tasting tomatoes. About 70 years ago a chance gene mutation, (not engineered by humans, but naturally occurring), was discovered. Breeders found that tomatoes with this gene ripened uniformly scarlet when ripe, and they bred this quality into nearly all tomatoes. Researchers have now discovered that the gene that was inactivated by that mutation was the gene involved producing the sugar and aroma of a great tomato. Now that this mutation has been bred into most modern tomatoes, it is hard to find great tasting tomatoes. The best way to find great tasting tomatoes is to buy the varieties that were around before the introduction of the new breed of tomatoes, the many heirloom varieties. I was always happy to provide these tomatoes, happy that they taste so good and are so pleasing to the eye. I was happy to support biodiversity and the preservation of species (yes, the best way to preserve them is to eat them, causing greater demand for them), and now we know a bit more about them and why they taste so good. Here is a link to the varieties of heirlooms grown by Amy Hepworth: