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It's that time of year when tomatoes usually start to look and taste a little sad. Their color can seem flat, their texture a bit mealy. But there's a new hope for winter tomatoes.
As NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, farmers in cold winter climates, from Virginia to Maine, are reproducing the taste of summer 12 months a year.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you want to know what separates a good tomato from a bad tomato, Todd Wiss is a good guy to ask. He's a professional chef and a tomato lover.
TODD WISS: It's all about the smell. And you smell it, you smell the Earth, you can smell the soil. You can almost taste it.
AUBREY: I caught up with Wiss in the kitchen of Firefly Restaurant in D.C. He's the chef de cuisine here, and he goes out of his way to buy local produce. I've come with a challenge: Could the tomato that I've brought with me today - Wiss has no idea where it came from - taste anywhere near as good as the kind of ripe, summer tomatoes he loves? Wiss says he's very skeptical.
WISS: This time of year it's hard. You can just tell by looking at it. If it's opaque in color it's probably off.
AUBREY: But when he inspects the tomato that I brought, which is a bright golden yellow, his face lights up.
WISS: Wow, it's a beautiful tomato. It's got a nice color to it, nice texture. If it tastes as good as it looks, I think we're going to be in for a real surprise.
AUBREY: Now, we'll get to a taste test in a minute. But I should explain that the tomatoes we usually get this time of year are typically trucked in from Florida or other faraway warm climates. And they're grown from seeds that are known to produce tough tomatoes. It's intentional because the tomatoes need to withstand the wear and tear of travel and have a very long shelf life, which can compromise their taste.
But this bright yellow tomato we're about the taste is different. It was grown pretty close to here, not in a field but inside a greenhouse, about a 90-minute drive away in West Virginia. This is something you never would've seen here a decade ago. The day I went for a visit, it was cold, there was frost on the ground, and the owner, Paul Mock, gave me a tour.
PAUL MOCK: This is one seven greenhouses.
AUBREY: As we stepped inside, the temperature rises dramatically.
It's summer all year round here in the greenhouse, huh?
MOCK: Yeah, it's - yeah. And that's part of what we have to do. We use propane to heat our greenhouses.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
MOCK: And that's the propane heaters right now.
AUBREY: It's very humid and bright in here. Rows upon rows of tomato vines stand about eight feet tall. And it smells kind of like a cross between an indoor swimming pool and a garden.
What catches my eye in here are the brilliant colors of the tomatoes. They range from bright golds to deep purple, and Paul shows me some that are ready for harvest.
So, what are you plucking from the vine there?
MOCK: OK, that's a pink Brandywine.
AUBREY: Ah. And...
AUBREY: I see why it's called pink Brandywine. It is almost, like, a pink hue.
AUBREY: As he bends down to snag it from the vine, he points out what really makes this operation very different. These plants are not growing in soil. There's no hint of Earth in here at all. Instead, what I see are narrow irrigation tubes threaded through each pot.
MOCK: And this black line, that's the irrigation line, like your garden hose, and the plants are getting nutrients through the water.
AUBREY: Mock explains this is what's known as hydroponics. Everything that a tomato normally gets the soil - including fertilizer and nutrients like calcium and iron - are instead being fed to these tomato plants directly through the hose.
MOCK: It's almost like you're getting an IV at the hospital. You're getting that right, directly in your vein so it's almost instantaneous.
AUBREY: And Mock says the advantage is that it gives him faster and better control over how his tomato plants grow. If there's, say, a calcium deficiency, he can correct it much more quickly than if it were soil.
Now, he knows that in the past, attempts at hydroponic tomatoes didn't always turn out so well. They can be as bland as any winter tomato. But he says there are big differences between those tomatoes and the ones he's producing. For starters, it's the seeds he's using. They're are all organic - mostly Cherry and Heirloom varieties - and they each produce distinct flavors.
MOCK: Pink Heirloom tomatoes, they're a little milder. Red is going to be your good, tangy, acidic taste. And then the purples and the black Heirlooms, they're a little sweeter.
AUBREY: And Mock says the way he maximizes these flavors is by allowing each tomato in his greenhouse to ripen on the vine.
MOCK: If we were to pick a tomato green and allow it to ripen, it would taste no better than a shipped tomato.
AUBREY: What's typical of tomatoes that are shipped long, long distances is that they're harvested while they're still green. They ripen en route and the flavor never fully develops. So the big advantage Mock has is that his customers are all nearby.
MOCK: We are harvesting today so what gets harvested today will get sent to either stores or distributors tomorrow.
AUBREY: And could be on the shelves at markets, such as Wegmens or Whole Foods, by lunchtime. They cost about $5 a pound or more, but Paul Mock says given the demand he's seen, lots of people seem willing to splurge.
MOCK: Right now, I don't have enough product for Martins or Safeway and - or Harris Teeter.
AUBREY: He's actually having to turn customers away, which must say something about the taste of his tomatoes. Back at the kitchen of Firefly restaurant in D.C., chef Todd Wiss has been waiting to sink his teeth into one and the moment has come.
WISS: Wow. Amazing.
AUBREY: If we close our eyes, could you actually be convinced that maybe it's July and this is an heirloom tomato right from your grandparents' garden?
WISS: Without a doubt. Without a doubt.
WISS: Absolutely. I mean, it's got the flavor, the smell, the texture, sweetness.
AUBREY: And Wiss says, he truly is surprised. Now, greenhouses like the one in West Virginia are starting to pop up on the outskirts of urban areas all over the country. So when you get that hankering for a taste of the summer, say maybe in mid-January, a good tomato might be closer than you thought. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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