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Why choose heirloom tomatoes?

Plenty of reasons. Flavour is one. But there's more to peak flavour than heirloom variety alone.

We grew Sungolds hydroponically and Sungolds in the soil at home and did a little blind taste test with five friends [...] every single person picked the soil-based Sungolds […] the soil made a flavour difference that every single person could tell […]

– Iming Lin

Harvesting heirloom tomatoes epitomises cooking without recipes – you quite literally don’t want to do anything to them because they are so delicious exactly as they are.

As cooks we prioritise flavour and as a farmer, and the owner of Meuse, so does Iming Lin. So about two years ago, we started sourcing tomatoes from Meuse Farm.

Around this time last year, just as the tomato season was drawing to a close, we spent an afternoon chatting with Iming.

In the video (above) and the edited transcript (below), you can find Iming’s thoughts on:

  • The term heirloom variety

  • Why it’s not only about heirloom variety

  • Which tomato varieties are her favourite

Iming Lin, farmer and owner, Meuse

How would you describe an heirloom variety?

I go by the standard definition which I think is a variety that is 250 years old.

People started keeping seeds of what became an heirloom because they found a tomato (for example) that was delicious, had beautiful fruit, or had cultural meaning (or all three!).

So a variety that’s been saved and has its lineage and is open pollinated of course.

All heirlooms by definition are open pollinated but not all modern breeds are open pollinated.

Open pollinated means you can save seed from it, so its characteristics are stable from generation to generation.

With a hybrid seed, if you grow out that crop and then you save seed from it, its future children will not necessarily have the same characteristics.

For you it’s not just about variety, it’s also about soil?

For us it’s about varieties and it’s about flavour – it’s about how you grow. For me flavour comes from a few places, from the soil and the whole microbiome of bacteria and fungus.

We do understand how they feed plants and we don’t necessarily understand how all those nutrients create flavour in the end vegetable that you're eating, but it does have to do with diverse and healthy soils.

Tell us about the Sungold experiment?

We grew Sungolds hydroponically and Sungolds in the soil at home and did a little blind taste test with five friends [...] it was the first time we’d tasted them side by side and we were shocked: every single person picked the soil-based Sungolds.

The hydroponic ones were delicious because the variety is an amazing variety – the genetics are very, very good – but the soil made a flavour difference that every single person could tell on every single tomato.

So for me flavour comes from good soil but then it also requires good varieties.

Which varieties do you love?

The Sungold is just the classic small farms tomato. It’s got thin skin, it can never store, it’s just super sweet. Some chefs describe it as ‘obvious’, like it’s just this sweet crack tomato.

The white varieties tend to be more mild and more sweet and the purple varieties tend to be a bit richer and smokier, so you can almost say I want a range of colour and you get a range in the flavour spectrum.

We probably tried 30 varieties here. I like balanced acidity and sweetness and nothing too rich. If I’m making a tomato salad, my favourite three are Dr. Wyche’s, Striped German, and Great White.

For both farming and flavour, I like Dr. Wyche’s, Mikado, and Ananas Noire.

Where did you learn how to farm?

I learned to farm at a place called Stone Barns Centre for Food and Agriculture in the States. They’re an educational farm that promotes ecologically responsible farming methods and it also supplies to high end restaurants as well. 

You can find heirloom tomatoes at the Meuse open day on this coming Saturday 4 March and have the chance to pick your own in the cherry tomato patch.

Provenance & process