The great tomato search

Features - In searching for the perfect tomato, we found this Campari tomato at Harrie Teeter on James Island. (Staff/Stephanie Harvin

Summer is here and we know what we are looking for: a great tomato.

It's the one that lives in our taste memory: round and red, heavy with juice, acidic and yet somehow sweet at the same time.

My husband and I didn't get our backyard garden off the ground this year, so we went looking for a great tomato from grocery stores and roadside vendors.

Even before we leave our driveway, we know we may be in for disappointment. Every tomato lover knows the reality; tomatoes are not what they used to be. But we are determined to find the tomato of our summers' past.

If there is a great tomato to be found, surely it will be at Marion Square and the Charleston Farmers Market. There was no shortage of small vendors with beautiful looking ripe red tomatoes.

We were drawn to Owl's Nest Plantation from Cross, which was selling no less than 11 different varieties of organically grown tomatoes.

Six of their selections were heirlooms, but we were looking for a great traditional tomato. We purchased one of their large Beef Steak tomatoes at $3 a pound.

We bought tomatoes from two more of the regular produce vendors at the market, all grown on Johns Island.

Venturing farther, we went to Mount Pleasant. We didn't take the opportunity to pick our own tomatoes in the noonday sun, but we stopped at Boone Hall Farms on U.S. Highway 17 to purchase a local variety at 99 cents a pound.

And not wanting to play favorites, we purchased a few midsize tomatoes from Whole Foods Market. The store lists their origin as Texas, Canada or Guatemala. They were the most expensive tomatoes we purchased all day at $3.99 a pound.

On the trip back to the home of many of the tomatoes that we eventually would purchase, Johns Island, we bought tomatoes from Grips Produce on Folly Road at 79 cents a pound.

On Johns Island, we stopped first at two well-known produce markets: Rosebank Farms (Betsy Kerrison Boulevard. near Kiawah) and Stono Farms on Main Road.

Rosebank had a good collection of tomato varieties, including heirlooms. On our way home, we also visited the large roadside tent of the Olde Time Farmers Market on Main Road near U.S. Highway 17.

We purchased the prettiest large tomato variety, labeled as North Carolina vine-ripened.

To finish our collection, we bought a small box of Campari tomatoes from Harris Teeter on James Island. They are hydroponically raised by Eurofresh Farms in Arizona, and we have enjoyed them in the past.

So there they are, tomatoes aligned and carefully labeled on our kitchen counter. Ten samples waiting for the taste test.

The costs ranged from 79 cents a pound to $3.99 a pound. Did we find a great tomato? Each of these tomatoes were shiny, red, had great skin texture, a firmness that should signal ripeness and an almost uniform size.

But would they have flavor? Even if you don't love tomatoes, you probably know this. Americans demanded access to ripe tomatoes 365 days a year and the U.S. commercial agriculture met our needs. They hybridize tomatoes for their color, shape, resistance to pests, skin and long shelf life.

Tomatoes are picked and shipped while still green, and then exposed to ethylene gas to artificially ripen them somewhat.

What we are left with does not resemble the fruit that many of us knew from our childhood. People of a certain age understand that to find that, you have to grow it yourself. And even that is no guarantee.

That brings us to another question: Is it likely a whole generation or more, having grown up eating commercial tomatoes, now completely lacks the taste memory of a great tomato?

"Perhaps our taste buds are trying to send us a message. Today's industrial tomatoes are as bereft of nutrition as they are of flavor," says author Barry Estabrook.

He has written what may be the definitive book on this subject: "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit."

In this 2011 book, expanding on an award-winning article written for Gourmet magazine, Estabrook traces the tomato from its origins in South America to the huge industrial farms of Florida, including interesting stories on the plight of workers who pick the crops and the continuing research to "build" a better commercial tomato.

Back to our taste test. While not exactly a blind test, we put numbers on the tomatoes and plates and tried to taste each tomato without knowing where it had come from.

All of our samples looked wonderful when we cut them: ripe and red, with only one we judged as mealy.

Sadly, none of our samples came close to our definition of great tomato flavor, with three or four being acceptable if used on a sandwich or burger. Maybe we should have bought nothing but heirloom tomatoes, or maybe we should just wander our neighborhood asking for backyard tomato handouts.

We love tomatoes and will not give up the search.

We certainly did not sample all of the tomatoes for sale in the Charleston area. Please let us know where you have bought your favorite fruits. If you can grow only one variety, which one should you plant?

Email Stephanie Harvin at sharvin@postandcourier.com with your ideas.

Servings: 4 to 6.

If tomatoes are really good, the pure approach is best, but if you want something where the tomatoes blend with the rest of the salad, here's an idea from "The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook," edited by Sara Roahen and John T. Edge.

Ingrediants

Try adding basil and goat cheese to the mix.

5 cups of seeded bite-size watermelon chunks

1 1/2 pounds of very ripe seeded tomatoes

3 teaspoons of sugar

1/2 teaspoon of salt

1/2 cup of red wine vinegar

1/2 cup of strongly flavored extra-virgin olive oil

1 small red onion

Directions

Toss watermelon chunks with tomatoes, dice 1/2-inch cubes into a large bowl. Add sugar and salt, and let the mixture sit at room temperature for 15 minutes. Fold in a mixture of red wine vinegar and olive oil, along with a small red onion that is quartered and thinly sliced. Cover and refrigerate until cold. Serve chilled.

From "The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook," edited by Sara Roahen and John T. Edge.