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The Kapuler Papers - A Comparison of Heirloom and Modern Paste Tomatoes

A. M. Kapuler Ph.D.
Peace Seeds

Paste tomatoes and pasta go together. I wonder how they got together. The making of noodles from grains reputedly came from Marco Polo’s excursions to China in the 10th century. While pasta applies to noodles, spaghetti in particular, the paste-like quality of the batter and its sticky consistency likely have something to do with the name as well.

When it comes to tomatoes, paste tomatoes in particular, fruits of this character have more solids, less water, fewer seeds and a utility in the kitchen that means less heat to make a good thick sauce. Most species of tomatoes come from western Southamerica although the origin of cultivated tomatoes is usually ascribed to Mexico.

The generic paste tomato is the Roma indicating its Italian origin. This is a thick walled, plum shaped group of varieties whose chosen destination is a thick, deep red pasta sauce.
So pasta from China, tomatoes from Southamerica and paste varieties from Italy have gotten together to produce some of the worlds most popular cuisine, In some lands and some households the combination of paste tomatoes and noodles are staple fare, usually seasoned with some oregano and capsicum pepper. And in the USA, probably more paste tomato sauce is used for pizza than anything else.

For many years, tomatoes were botanically assigned to the genus Lycopersicon with between 6-10 species, the common edible ones called Lycopersicon esculentum or edible wolf’s apple. More recent science using molecular biological techniques finds the tomatoes included in the huge genus Solanum which comprises more than 1600 species, mostly from Southamerica. Thus tomatoes, once distinguished from their close cousin potato, are now found to be indeed close cousins together with the dulce pepino, a sweet fruited solanum whose fruits resemble eggplants.

In the 1885 The Vegetable Garden, one paste tomato, the King Humbert Tomato, is depicted by a drawing and it looks very much like a modern paste tomato. The text suggests that it was derived from the Pear-shaped tomato.

For many years we have grown different kinds of tomatoes, curious about the many colors, shapes, sizes, histories, vitalities, and adaptations to our ecosystem. During this past year, 2004, we focused on a growout of paste tomatoes. Cognizant of the newer cultivars of paste tomatoes, several coming from Dr. James Baggett of Oregon State University; namely, Oroma and Saucy, and the locally popular Ropreco, along with the classic Roma, we collected 16 different varieties to grow. Some had been in our seed collection for more than a decade. Italian Gold and Italia were contributed by Nichols Garden Nursery. The family heirlooms and several others came from the Seed Saver’s Exchange.

When it comes to germination, tomatoes are exceptional. Seeds last for many years if kept dry, at room temperature and out of direct light. The plants were grown in soil maintained organically for 15 years and not fertilized. Irrigation was with an overhead sprinkler system.


A summary of our observations is found in Table 1.

When we began preparing for this growout, I looked through the extensive listing of hundreds of tomato cultivars offered by the seed saver’s network in the Seed Saver’s Yearbook 2004. I was interested in growing heirlooms maintained by individual families for generations. In this way I obtained seeds for Boettner Italian, Gallo and Schleuter family heirloom varieties. Related to these cultivars, though not specifically family heirloom are the Amish paste and the Polish Giant paste tomatoes, cultural heirlooms. And then there was an offering for the Andean paste tomato which, considering that the homeland of species tomatoes is western Southamerica, was included in the growout.

For more recent paste tomato cultivars, we grew Baylor, Chico 3, Roma, Ropreco, Saucy, Oroma, Viva Italia hybrid and Italian Gold, a recent hybrid with golden fruits.

There are several observations of interest. Newer cultivars are determinate in that they flower several times and set fruit with each flowering and then mature their fruits without further growth. So while plants load up with mature fruits, the length of time they continue to bear fruit is limited. However, since they are all stocky plants, the need for stakes and trellising is eliminated. Most all of the newer paste tomato cultivars have medium-hard to hard fruits. Clearly they have been bred to withstand the rigors of shipping and storage. Roma had medium soft fruits as did Ropreco and the heirloom Ten Fingers of Naples had medium hard fruits so not all recent cultivars were rock solid.

The family heirlooms, Buettner, Gallo and Schleuter, as well as Amish and Andean were distinguished by their growth habit, indeterminate, wherein they kept flowering and fruiting for months, a trait of great utility to the backyard gardener and small crop market gardener who has limited land and is willing to stake or trellis the plants. Growing the plants up is a worthy task. The fruits are kept off the ground and the plants can exceed 6-8’ in height in fertile soil. To me, the most attractive aspects of these heirlooms were their soft texture and delicious flavor. The fruits were truly ripe on the plants. After picking and seeding the modern cultivars, I realized that their breeding was designed to give ripe-appearing fruits but their hardness and lack of flavor went together and they were breed to never get ripe. The heirloom indeterminates got ripe, developed exceptional flavor and continued to fruit for many months. The Gallo heirloom flowered and ripened fruits late but it was exceptional in that at a time when most plants had been picked and were at the end of their large scale production, this variety was in full swing. Hence in the late autumn it produced a great abundance of fine fruit.

One other trait was a standout in the family heirlooms, the Amish and the Andean was the shape and size of the fruits. They all had two kinds of fruits, a few large central ones and many lateral ones that were elongated like peppers. I suspect that commercialism dislikes this duality in fruit shape and all the modern varieties of paste tomatoes that we grew had but one fruit shape and size. Ten Fingers and Naples, Chico 3, Roma and Ropreco, of both heirloom and recent vintage had one fruit shape, size and were all determinants. The Viva Italia hybrid and the Baylor paste had oval, egg-shaped fruits produced abundantly and of excellent quality, no blemishes or cracks. Actually the heirlooms were remarkable in this way also, high quality fruit but considerable size and shape variation.

I suggest that you compare some of the heirloom paste tomatoes with the modern cultivars in your next gardening season.