Farmers have preferred uniform ripening in tomatoes, for example, enabling mechanized harvesting. Also, they’ve bred them for a hearty consistency to ensure they’ll survive transcontinental transit. What’s sacrificed, however, is taste. “With the tomatoes you find in the grocery store,” says Mary Brittain, of the family-run Cottage Gardener, in Newtonville, Ont., “people say they’re just kind of ‘wet’ and that’s about all.” But heirloom varieties have distinct, discernible flavours. “Some have a smoky taste,” she says. “Others are very sweet. Others taste more acidic, but it hits you and it lights up your taste buds. It’s not just something wet to accompany a hamburger. It’s something you’re eating to enjoy on its own.” And whereas heirloom tomatoes are often lumpy and asymmetrical — and more likely to splat than roll, if dropped — there is an unnatural sameness to mass-produced veggies.
Of course, heirlooms’ thin-skinned nature makes them tricky to transport and store, driving up costs. They can be up to three times as expensive as conventional produce. “Our customers really like Brandywine tomatoes,” says Aron Bjornson of Capers Community Markets, a chain of Vancouver organic food shops, “which can be difficult for us because sometimes they’re a bit soft.”