Americans love tomatoes. Sliced, in a sandwich, simmered in sauces, crushed into ketchup, served in a salad: In all, according to the USDA, we consume some 25 billion pounds of them annually–and I can proudly claim to have done my part to contribute to those impressive numbers.
For the past 10 years, my husband, Rick, and I have grown bushels of tomatoes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. And not just your time-honored red beefsteaks, but tasty plum, cherry; and grape varieties whose hues rival the rainbow and then some. Every year Rick and I compare the varieties in the company of tomato-growing friends and taste our way to the most flavorful few. Those we’ve grown are included in our tomato showdown: an annual event of 38 colorful varieties of tomatoes lined up side by side and compared in a blind taste test.
Each of the panelist presenters–12 of us total–bring baskets filled with their garden’s best–hundreds in all. We winnow them down to the cream of the crop, only a select few from each variety; and rate them on a taste scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being outstanding. We each use a blindfold, so taste, rather than a tomato’s size or shape or color, alone influences our decisions. One by one, each taster calls out a number from 1 to 5. As they do I record each score, sometimes with nodding approval, other times in amazement.
For the most part, each variety’s scores last summer were pretty consistent; however, some, like ‘Pilgrim’ and ‘Golden Boy’, spanned the scale. Three heirloom varieties (‘Pruden’s Purple’, ‘Old German’, and ‘Pineapple’) that scored well in previous years received an average rating of 3, probably owing to last summer’s cooler-than normal temperatures in our growing region. Still, among the most beautiful tomatoes, extra-large ‘Old German’ and ‘Pineapple‘ (fruity flavored reminiscent of ripe pineapple) remained personal favorites, with golden-yellow skin and bicolored stripes of red and yellow throughout. Each participant had a favored few, but ‘Black Plum’ averaged a 3 by the group while receiving a 5 from me. Two other black varieties, ‘Black from Tula’ and ‘Black Prince’, also made the overall Top 10.
A few paste-type varieties were also included, with ‘Italian Gold’ and ‘Viva Italia’–which later made their debut in our garden–pulling in several 3 and 4 ratings. I must admit, I had great expectations for some highly anticipated varieties that ended with extreme disappointment. ‘Garden Peach’ with its fuzzy peach-like fruits scored an average of only 21/2.
Looks were deceiving: ‘Aunt Ruby’s German Green’ and ‘Valencia’, both beautiful and tantalizing, ultimately proved to be bombs in the flavor category, though one taster did give the former a 4. And who wouldn’t love names like ‘Plum Lemon’, ‘Cherokee Purple‘, and ‘Banana Legs’, which, however, received the lowest scores of all the varieties tasted. Familiar favorites were also included, though ‘Brandywine’ enthusiasts won’t be happy to hear that it didn’t make our Top 10 last year. ‘Caspian Pink’, a Russian heirloom bearing 10- to 12-ounce fruits with outstanding flavor, beat out ‘Brandywine’.
The winning variety? Well, we cheated just a bit by including super-sweet ‘Sun-gold’, probably the tastiest cherry tomato there is. Even after tasting dozens of tomatoes, you could see and hear each raster gasp with excitement as he or she bit into its luscious, tropically sweet flavor. As to the other winners? Our chart (right) tells all. But this year, you be the judge.