There are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes, fruits that are native to the New World. Though we associate many tomato dishes with European cuisines, the bright red rounds were brought to Europe after the Spanish explorers found them in the Americas.
A dispute over pricing of Mexican tomatoes reached a tentative agreement last month. Mexican tomato prices are typically lower than American-grown varieties — Florida is one of the largest producers — with the Sunshine State claiming that Mexican tomatoes are priced too low to compete.
Because we rely on tomatoes grown outside our area for so much of the year, we wondered how much of a taste difference there is among regions. In our markets, we tend to see tomatoes from Mexico, Florida, Canada, and Maine (those northern growers use greenhouses).
We tasted a small sample of the smallest tomatoes (often the sweetest this time of year). They go under various names, such as “cherry,” “pearl,” and “cocktail.” Ruth Hazzard, vegetable specialist at the University of Massachusetts Extension in Amherst, says, “There are so many factors that can affect the flavor of the tomato. It is not just about genetics. It has to do with when they were picked — ripening on the vine or off — and how far they traveled.”
At the tasting, we were looking for good tomato flavor (harder to find than you think), a balance between sweet and acid (tasters often called this “sour”), with good texture on the skins.
The winner was Backyard Farms of Madison, Maine, where the smallest ones are called “pearl” tomatoes. “Tastes like a summer tomato, sweet and juicy,” said one. The Florida tomatoes didn’t do as well, with complaints like “tasteless” and “tough skins.” Mexico did a bit better: “Light but fresh tomato taste,” and “nice red color,” but many found the skins tough, “like a rhinoceros,” according to one. Hazzard says that the farther a tomato has to travel, the more bruise-resistant it has to be, hence a tougher skin.
After the tasting, we tossed all the leftover rounds into a saucepan and sauteed them with leeks and butter. The skins cracked, the seeds popped out, and the tomatoes turned jammy. A quick whir in the blender and we had a creamy tomato soup. It tasted almost like summer.
JemD Farms Pearl Tomatoes
($3.99 for 1 quart)
Size and color stood out for these chubby orbs. Several tasters used the word “pleasant” to describe the scent and flavor. “Larger, redder than any others, not sweet, but juicy and pleasant.” “Nice color, a bit mushy in texture, less taste than I expected.” “Rich red color. Not strong tomato taste.” “Some lightly spicy tomatoey scents; rather thick chewy skins, and very little tomato flavor. Moderate acidity.” One chose it as the favorite: “Easy to cut, juicy, good tomato aroma. Good mixture of tart and sweet.” And one was unimpressed: “Blah. Skin too thick.”
Gargiulo Farms Cherry Tomatoes
($2.99 for 1 pint)
The lightest in color of these tomatoes. Skin texture was an issue and several tasters disliked it, calling it “cardboard.” One: “It could be a cucumber, hard to tell.” “Off taste; dreadful; could be another fruit or veg — just not sure what.” “Utterly devoid of tomato character.” “Tough to cut, tough skin, and difficult to chew.”
Backyard Farms Pearl Tomatoes
($5.99 for 1 pound), pictured above
“Sweet,” was the word for this dynamo. Most agreed that this was a tomato that had some scent. Six out of 9 tasters chose it as the favorite and several as second best. “Some pleasing tomatoe-y scents; juicy pulp with very good tomato flavor and just-right perky acids.” “Good texture, though skin a little tough. Some flavor. Faintly sweet.” “Smells like a tomato.” “Taste is excellent.” “Nice bright tomato flavor.”
Del Cabo Certified Organic Cherry Tomatoes
($3.99 for 1 pint)
This was the only option for a cherry tomato at several Whole Foods Markets. Many commented on the tough texture with mixed reviews on taste and smell: “Almost nothing to sniff; tough skins and zero
flavor.” “Hard flesh; not much juice; no taste.” “Taste is good. Hard, crunchy skin.” “Sweet smelling. Stronger taste but I’m still not hooked.” “Very firm to cut.” One chose it as least favorite: “Tough and sour.”
NatureSweet Cherry Tomatoes
($2.49 for 10½ ounces)
The overriding theme in these comments was about the skin texture. “Firm, thick-ish skin.” “No particular aroma, mealy texture. Skin somewhat tough. Sweet taste follows a sour one.” “Fresh tomato smell when cut. Skin smooth and uniform. Slightly soft texture. Very light and bright tomato taste.” “Moderate tomato flavor; some depth; a bit mealy.”
Trader Joe’s Pearl Tomatoes
($2.79 for 14 ounces)
“Juicy” appeared on many comments, as well as “acidic” and “sour.” “Nice juice. No aromatics.” “Softer but still firm. Seeds/juice not splurting out all over me.” “Sour fresh taste — juicy.” “Solid, but chewable skin. Nice color.” “Flavor rather leafy and herbal rather than tomato-y. A bit more acidity and zip, perhaps because it is less ripe.”
Debra Samuels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.