Uglyripes Give Tomato Fans an Alternative
Even die-hard tomato lovers who buy huge plants laden with green fruit have to wait until June for the first taste — unless we can find that old-fashioned garden taste in a supermarket. Now we can, in an Uglyripe.
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By Doug Oster
What is a gardener to do before the tomatoes of summer arrive? Maybe you went out and bought one of those huge fruit-laden plants. I don't blame you; I do the same thing every year. For three bucks, it's the best investment of the season.
I first stumbled onto Uglyripes two winters ago. I picked up this tomato, and the first thing I noticed was its soft, thin skin and intoxicating aroma. It was surrounded by impostors bred for shipping, those lifeless, thick-skinned globes that never really ripen and taste like a tennis ball. Uglyripes make those tomatoes obsolete.
For years, produce breeders have been selecting tomatoes based on their ease of commercial cultivation and shipping. So we got fruit that would ripen all at the same time for machine harvesting and could endure the rigors of transportation. Then tomato lovers rediscovered heirloom tomatoes.
These wonderful varieties were kept alive by families passing the seeds down from generation to generation. They are the antithesis of the hybrid tomato of the '70s and '80s, ripening over a long time and grown purely for taste. These tomatoes wouldn't last a day on a truck headed for Pittsburgh because they don't have to.
In South Philadelphia, Procacci Brothers Sales Corp. ships produce all over the country. Joseph Procacci, one of the owners, remembers staring down at a big, thin-skinned tomato as he and some others tried to think of how to market this great-tasting tomato. "Why don't we just call it an Uglyripe?" Procacci said. "Then they'll know it's supposed to be ugly."
Chris Cunnane, director of sales for tomatoes at Procacci, has been part of what might be a paradigm shift in the industry. The company, which first brought us the grape tomato Santasweet, knows taste is what counts. "In produce in general, the trend was towards product that would look good and last long. That evolved into tomatoes that don't taste good," he said.
The Uglyripe was developed from a Marmande, an heirloom beefsteak well known in the southern regions of France and other parts of Europe. Its breeders were trying for a perfect balance between sugar and acid. Once they had a great-tasting tomato, the next trick was getting it to stores intact.
"Because of the handling characteristics of the tomato, we needed to train the receivers. You need to educate them on the proper handling," said Cunnane. "They are soft."
The tomatoes are shipped in special containers and are "hand-handled gently from the field to the retail store," the company says.
The rise of the Uglyripe is a change for the better in the wonderful world of tomatoes. As more people discover them, hopefully they will turn their backs on the rest, causing them to fade away.
Maybe one day we'll be telling stories about the bad old days and the bland-tasting impostors we endured for decades. And this wonderful ugly tomato will make thick-skinned tasteless tomatoes just an awful memory.
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