UNITY, Maine — Lots of people are familiar with Beefsteak, Brandywine and Roma tomatoes, which appear with regularity in supermarket produce aisles as well as in the seed packets for sale at local garden centers.
But ask even the most up-to-date vegetable connoisseur about Blue Beech, Clementine and Cherry Bomb tomatoes, and they are likely to look more quizzical instead of hungry. That’s because these tomato cultivars are new or still in development by research scientists at Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Fairfield, who are hoping that they won’t be unknown for long.
“I got to help identify these as really special new varieties,” Emily Haga, a tomato and pepper breeder at Johnny’s, said Sunday evening while presiding over a rainbow-hued table of tomatoes during a special seed-to-table tasting event held at the Unity Food Hub. “We do so much tasting at Johnny’s, you can call us taste snobs. Here, I get to see people who are maybe a little less analytical. And when I see the joy they get eating something so flavorful and beautiful, it’s very satisfying. This is a nice reminder that what we’re doing is really feeding people.”
The event was intended to showcase the work that the company is doing and to help establish a network of breeders, chefs and food enthusiasts, many of whom appeared as excited as the quintessential kid in a candy store as they sampled the tomatoes, squash, peppers, greens, cabbages and other hybrids.
Haga said that prior to becoming a plant breeder she ran a farm, and so has an appreciation for science that has real-world applications.
“I was really excited to learn there were people developing these new and improved vegetables,” she said. “I thought that kind of research was really useful.”
But it also takes a long time. When she came to work at the seed company in 2012, the Clementine — a bright orange tomato of a similar size as its namesake citrus — and the red, sweet Cherry Bomb already were in development. Breeders at Johnny’s use traditional techniques, such as hand-pollination to combine traits of interest and several generations of selecting the best offspring, to identify varieties that taste good and are easy to grow. It can take as long as eight to ten years to create the hybrid, Haga said, and then another three or four to put the new vegetable through the trial process.
All that work is done to make sure only top-quality hybrids appear in the seed catalogue, where often new offerings replace something else.
“It’s precious real estate in the catalogue,” she said.
People could sample the three new tomato varieties raw and in various preparations, including roasted with olive oil, which brought out their sweetness. Chefs from around the state participated in the event, too, making more elaborate dishes, such as tomato soda — tart and refreshing — and savory-sweet tomato jams and preserves. The same abundance of offerings was true for all the vegetables and apples on display during the tasting event.
“I think the idea is just to have the display and interaction with the public, and involve some good cooks,” said Rob Johnson, founder of Johnny’s Seeds.
Pastry chef Kim Rodgers, who works at Portland restaurants Hugo’s, Honeypaw and Eventide, said that when she was asked to create a dish from the Clementine and Cherry Bomb tomatoes, she wanted something that would be easy to transport and she settled on the sodas — one for each hybrid. She’d made unusual sodas before, she said, but discovered something in the process of making them for the seed-to-table tasting event.
“You think a tomato’s a tomato, but they’re actually drastically different,” she said. “It was really fun to find that out.”