The divide between a tasteless supermarket hybrid and a lovingly grown heirloom tomato could not be greater. At Hepworth Farms in Milton, twin sisters Gail and Amy Hepworth grow more than 80 varieties of organic tomatoes — in all sizes, shapes, and colors — on more than 80 acres, cultivated by their family since 1818.
“During the season, we have a saying that tomatoes don’t know it’s Sunday. That means we pick the tomatoes when we think they’re ready, and sometimes that means on Sunday,” explains Gail. “Heirloom tomatoes are labor-intensive and growing them is a labor of love seven days a week during peak season.”
As opposed to hybrid tomatoes that are crossbred for certain long-lasting characteristics, heirlooms are singular, older varieties. With seeds that are saved and handed down through generations, they’re bred for flavor — and are far more delicate to grow.
Gail speaks of tomatoes with the passion a winemaker might have for grapes, aware of nuances many might miss. “From a tasting point of view, [heirlooms] range from singularly sweet to highly acidic; from complex to very balanced,” she says. “When someone tells me they don’t like tomatoes, I’ll have them try a Sungold, which is an orange cherry heirloom that’s sweet, fruity, and popping with juice. If that doesn’t do it, I’ll give them one of our Mountain Magic cocktail tomatoes. They’re bright red with a smooth, sweet, classic tomato flavor.”
For an adventurous tomato lover, “I’d give them one of our black and purple heirlooms like Black Beauty or Indigo Cherry Drop,” says Gail. “They have rich, complex undertones and a flavor that’s almost smoky or earthy.”
When buying heirlooms, set aside the notion that a tomato should look perfect. While the Hepworth family eats tomatoes many different ways, Gail’s favorite dish is a scoop of cottage cheese topped with a chopped tomato, olive oil, fresh basil, salt and pepper.
“In-season, home-grown tomatoes are so delicious,” Amy says. “We wait eight months for a tomato that tastes like a tomato should. It’s our family tradition to give the first ripe tomato to our mom.”
Hepworth Farms’ tomatoes are sold locally at Adams Fairacre Farms, and at select Whole Foods and through Fresh Direct.