The Great Heirloom Paste Tomato Search

A few years ago I walked into the garden center with the intention of finding a couple of roma tomato plants for the new sandbox-turned-raised bed garden.  I didn't have a particular variety in mind, I simply wanted a steady supply of fresh roma tomatoes for salsa-making.  Out of the two varieties the garden center had available, I chose two Big Mama tomato plants (a hybrid variety exclusive to Burpee).  The plants looked healthy and the price was right, so I brought them home and enjoyed a bumper crop of tomatoes from those two little plants.  Turns out, it was a lucky pick, and so started a long term relationship with what has become my go-to garden tomato.
Big Mama has been a good tomato variety for me.  It has consistently produced large, meaty tomatoes with few seeds.  Paste-type tomatoes are not usually known for being the tastiest of all tomatoes for fresh eating, so as far as paste-type tomatoes go, Big Mama has good flavor and texture, but the flavor really sings when roasted or cooked down into a sauce or salsa.    Its growth can only be described as prolific, growing up, over, and down our fence to "heights" around 10' in total, and setting on large clusters of tomatoes right up until the frosty end of the season.  When it comes to processing, the tomatoes peel like a dream; half the time I don't even bother with boiling water.  
So why mess with a good thing?  Well, there are a few good reasons.  It's no secret that I advocate growing more heirlooms for a number of reasons.  I don't have anything against hybrid varieties, but when given the choice, I naturally gravitate towards heirloom varieties.  It's a personal preference, but also practical one.

As I've mentioned before, one of my main garden goals is to save more of my own seeds for the varieties that I grow from year to year.  Big Mama  is a hybrid variety, so any seeds saved would not produce true to type.  If I can find an heirloom alternative (which are open pollinated), I can save seeds from year to year.  There is a cost factor as well.  Hybrids in general are typically more expensive than heirlooms, because of the extra time and effort that goes into the breeding, but in addition, Big Mama is exclusively available through Burpee, so unfortunately there is no market competition and you will not find this one on a bargain seed rack.
And so I set out this winter to find a couple of comparable heirloom varieties to grow with Big Mama in this year's garden.  I want to see if I can find an heirloom alternative that is as good or better than my favorite hybrid variety.  Ultimately it's going to come down to taste and production, seeing as the paste-type tomatoes are the backbone of my preserving efforts each year.  

If you're thinking about heirloom paste tomatoes, it doesn't take long to come up with Amish Paste and San Marzano.  They are both fairly common varieties and widely available, so they naturally rose to the surface quickly.  Amish Paste is a variety that originates from an Amish community in Wisconsin and San Marzano is the famous Italian heirloom.  They both appear to be comparable to Big Mama, so it was a no brainer to add them to the short list.  
Initially, I was thinking I would just pick one, or maybe two varieties to try this year, but as I was doing a little Google research on Amish Paste vs. San Marzano, I started seeing reviews for Opalka (also known as Polish Torpedo), a Polish heirloom that gardeners raved about, saying that its flavor was far superior to either of the other varieties I was considering.  And then, in looking up Opalka, I stumbled upon Federle, a West Virginia heirloom that was described as having excellent flavor and exceptionally good for salsa. They made the short list, too  

After a lot of back and forth, trying to decide which of the four varieties I had on my short list would go toe to toe with Big Mama, I decided that since each variety had some characteristic I found appealing, why not make it a true trial, and try a couple of plants of each?  I've done crazier things in the past.
I started all five varieties at the same time (about a month ago), and already I can see some of the differences.  The more common varieties have larger leaves and have an overall sturdier feel to the plants, while the Opalka and Federle have lived up to their descriptions as "wispy," with much more delicate leaves and plant structure.  The real comparisons will begin once these seedlings are moved into the garden and start producing.  Stay tuned to see how the plants, fruit, and salsa stack up and if one of these four heirlooms will replace Big Mama in my garden for years to come.

Seed Sources: Big MamaBurpeeAmish Paste  and San Marzano: Baker Creek Heirloom SeedOpalka and Federle: Seed Saver's Exchange.

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