Is there a food that better channels the wonders of nature than the tomato? Biting into a ripe tomato is like opening the front door to your soul and letting summer rush in for a strong drink.
A crate of mismatched tomatoes at a farmers’ market is a thing of beauty. Tomatoes seem to key into a human longing for simple things. All you need to do is cut them and dust on salt, maybe olive oil. In an age of absinthe and uni and crazy social media milkshakes that nobody actually drinks, the simplicity feels refreshing.
At the same time, a boundless complexity flows from the fruit. Tomatoes are lumpy here, hard there, soft here, and split there. They glisten with colors you rarely see in nature. Look, and a crate of tomatoes almost look like a vessel containing tiny planets.
A table of yellow, blue, and purple tomatoes from end to end with such crates deservedly draws a crowd. This proved itself last weekend at the Old Town Farmers’ Market, where Brother Nature Farms had its tomatoes on display, oddball spheres catching the sun like alien gems.
The names of these motley starburst gems are Tigerella, Sungold Select, and Solar Flare.
They are Indigo Kumquat and Mortgage Lifter, Cherokee Purple and Grandpa’s Wax.
They are Lucid Gems.
Lucid Gems sound like a surrealism out of Van Gogh or The Grateful Dead. But they are just a groovy kind of tomato, one of the many heirloom and hybrid nightshades that Brother Nature culls from the land.
“It’s got really sweet flavor, almost like pineapple ,a little bit but more complex,” Brother Nature’s Ian Beger says of the Lucid Gem. “I think it’s the best tomato I’ve ever had.”
Brother Nature grows heirloom and hybrid tomatoes on a suburban Scottsdale plot. “We have a 1,200 square foot greenhouse,” Beger says. “We’re growing all sorts of funky tomatoes.”
The difference between an heirloom and hybrid tomato is that an heirloom has stayed true-to-seed, meaning that it hasn't been crossbred, in the last 40 years. The phrase “heirloom” carries cachet and sex appeal. But hybrids can be just as incandescent if bred by a skilled farmer.
Picture a standard red tomato. Imagine its flavor. Picture other red tomatoes. A plum tomato, like the oval San Marzano tomatoes shaking in the wind on the slops of Vesuvius, has more sweetness. Cooked, San Marzano tomatoes make a heady sauce. Picture a chunky red Beefsteak tomato. Beefsteaks gush juice and are mostly less good for sauce making, and better for straight-up eating.
There have been estimates that the world knows more than 10,000 kinds of tomatoes. Now picture, alongside your standard red tomato, the colors and forms of this vast sun-drenched tomato galaxy. Imagine the textures and acid variations and flavor possibilities, the sheer range!
Brother Nature’s tomatoes offer some of this, some of that, and holy shit what was that. Some are big. Some are small. Some are yellow, low acid, and citrusy. Some are purplish, lush, and alive with plummy flavors.
A red Mortgage Lifter is bulbous and looks like a buzz saw when lopped in half. A Indigo Kumquat is small and yellow, with a mark the color of a bruise, like the eye on a black-eyed pea. And a lucid gem is black-purple with thin sunset veins on the outside. The inside shows a rich yellow corona around a bubblegum core.
Brother Nature will geek out with you on tomatoes. Whatever intensity you display, they will match.
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If you show enough interest, Beger might start to tell you about his farm’s plans. Brother Nature’s tomato operations will soon be moving to Castle Hot Springs, a 19th-century resort northwest of Lake Pleasant. The farm will furnish a new restaurant with its produce. “We will be designing and implementing the farm-to-table program there on the farmer side,” Beger says.
For the gig, Brother Nature will breed a new tomato. It will be an evolution of the Lucid Gem.
“We’re in the first stages of developing our own Castle Hot Springs tomato,” Beger says. “We’ll be breeding the Lucid Gem with the Tigerella, two of our favorite tomatoes, to develop our own strain of tomato.”
Tomato season in Arizona is long, open-ended, strange. It isn’t like the season back east, which is a season of ephemeral power, a brief crack of summer light. But the Old Town Market and its bounty end Saturday, so grab a few crates of ripe tomatoes and funnel summer clean into your soul while you can.