For years, Sarah Phillips Loth, owner of First and South, a Greenport restaurant focused on local produce, watched her mother observe a sweet summer ritual.
“Latham’s used to have a farm stand across the street from the restaurant and my mother’s favorite treat was heading over to pick a tomato with Eddie (who worked at the farm stand) to make sauce, eggplant parmigiana, or just to slice and salt.”
If that kind of indulgence sounds extreme, you may need to experience North Fork tomatoes — many of them heirloom varieties; a fleeting summertime treat that often inspire an intense response.
These days, Loth, whose restaurant is appropriately located at the northwest corner of First and South streets in the village, gets most of the tomatoes she serves in the restaurant from Ira Haspel at KK’s The Farm (59945 Main Road, Southold).
Haspel says he’s currently growing 25 different varieties of tomatoes, mostly heirlooms. But he also plants some hybrid (non-heirloom) varieties, such as Sungold cherry tomatoes, and is happy to explain the difference.
“An heirloom is any plant where the seed can be documented for at least 75 years,” he said. “They are more disease resistant and they reproduce themselves exactly, so you can save the seeds and plant again. Most of them taste fabulous.”
Haspel’s personal favorite is Striped German, a full-sized heirloom that is red, yellow and orange on the outside and on the inside.
“It has a full tomato taste and complexity of flavor,” he added.
Loth also likes Deep Roots Farm (57685 Main Road, Southold) as a supplier of tomatoes for her restaurant, as well as a place to purchase plants “for at-home exploration in the pursuit of tomato cultivation.”
She is positively poetic describing one of her favorite varieties, the Tiger Blush.
“It reminds me of a sunrise with its rich golden yellows and blush pinks streaking in. It ripens off the vine, and has skin that’s strong but not tough (so no messy popping open) and a juicy, tropical taste. I don’t like tomato juice from a can but I love tomato juice from a tiger blush.”
One of the best-loved North Fork farms for tomatoes, Cooper Farms (Breakwater Road, Mattituck) doesn’t even grow heirlooms. Doug Cooper has been farming in this spot for most of his life, growing the same old-school hybrid tomatoes for 25 years because people love them.
He won’t divulge the variety he grows, but confirmed that it is not a new variety, medium large and firm. He starts the plants in the greenhouse near the end of February, sets them out in the field in May and they ripen anywhere from mid-July to mid-August. His customers come back every year to pick them right out of the field or, if they forgot their sunscreen, purchase at the farm stand.
Ripeness is all, said Luchi Masliah, owner of goodfood. (535 Pike St., Mattituck), describing a virtual tomato hotline between her and Laurie McBride, the farm stand manager at Wickham’s Fruit Farm (Main Road,, Cutchogue) where many varieties of heirloom tomatoes are grown.
McBride knows who to call when she urgently needs to find a home for a load of ripe tomatoes, and “we know how to use them,” Masliah said. She likes to mix varieties of tomatoes to make gazpacho, a cold summer soup that goodfood. is known for.
“Using a variety of tomatoes, it’s richer, the flavors are more interesting,” Masliah said. “Some are sweet, some have more acidity and you get balance. I also use cucumber, peppers, good olive oil and maybe a little ripe watermelon, sometimes that’s a nice twist.”
“You only need one word about a good tomato; that word is, August.”Ira Haspel
At First and South, a special salad is the showcase dish for perfectly ripe tomatoes.
“We serve a wedge salad that has baby heirlooms cooked slightly by pouring hot olive oil over thin slices of garlic, fresh herbs and halved baby heirlooms,” she said. “They’re sliced in half so they ‘melt’ a bit, the juices run, the garlic sweats and as the oil cools, the flavors incorporate, we refrigerate and serve.”
For her own tomato enjoyment, Loth opts for the BLT.
“Everything thick; bacon, bread, mayo, tomato and a lettuce that’s full of crunch,” she said. “A pinch of sea salt. Summer. Satisfaction.”
Masliah’s favorite is a dish from her native Uruguay, a salad of tomatoes, hearts of palm and sliced red onion, dressed with olive oil and sherry or red wine vinegar.
Tomato farmers are such purists. Both Haspel and Cooper said their preferred method for enjoying a tomato is atop plain bread, “with Hellman’s,” added Cooper.
“There is an old saying about tomatoes,” Haspel said. “You only need one word about a good tomato; that word is, August.”