The Great Heirloom Paste Tomato Search: End of Season Report Card

Well, after months of growing, observing, tasting, cooking, and canning, the time has come to wrap up "The Great Heirloom Paste Tomato Search!"  If you're just tuning in, this year I set out to find an heirloom alternative to my favorite hybrid paste tomato (you can read up on why and the varieties I selected here, and see how they were growing mid-season here).  
Before I get to each of the varieties, I want to frame this post a bit.  While I am definitely coming away with some tomatoes I'll grow again and some I likely will not, I'm also keenly aware of how highly subjective this task is, so please keep in mind that I'm growing in Minnesota in zone 4b (you know, where we had a snowstorm in May this year and our summers are ripe with humid conditions perfect for Early Blight) and my personal preference tends towards tomatoes with a rich, more acidic flavor profile.  On my part, I will do my best to interject fair descriptions that I hope will still be helpful even if you don't share my exact tomato preferences. And as always, if you have a differing opinion or experience of a variety, by all means, please weigh in with your comments!

With that said, here are my final reviews for the various paste tomato varieties I trialed this year (in the same random order they are pictured above, for the sake of consistency):
Opalka is an incredibly dense and meaty (practically solid) tomato with very few seeds.  The slightly acidic flavor and smooth texture are excellent, both fresh and cooked.  The plants got off to a slow start, but made up for it with a high yield later in the season, even despite problems with Early Blight.  Opalka and Federle are very similar, but Opalka has the edge on the account of a slightly fuller flavor and better texture and yield.  I will definitely be growing this one again, but I would likely pair it with an earlier paste variety to compensate for late season maturity.  Final Grade: A 

As I mentioned above, Federle and Opalka are very similar tomatoes.  Federle is another dense tomato (though with a few more seeds than Opalka) that is perfect for sauce and salsa.  The texture is good and the flavor is very pleasant, but a little on the mild side for my tastes for fresh eating.  The fruits were quite slow to ripen, and the overall yield seemed to suffer a bit (possibly a result of our growing conditions - some kind of blight hit the fruits pretty hard in September).   I would say this one might be worth a second try on account of it's usefulness in canning, but Opalka being so similar and slightly better, I will stick with Opalka.  Final Grade: B

Big Mama
Being the standard by which everything else is being judged, I will admit I am disappointed in the showing Big Mama made this year.  After getting off to a promising start, the yield did not come close to what it has been in years past.  I'm not sure if that is reflective of the growing season this year (early blight and blossom end rot were big issues for this variety), or the fact that these plants were started from seed when in past years I've always purchased plants? Whatever the reason, they were not the same stellar Big Mamas I've grown in years past.  Despite the challenges, it was still a good early producer and yielded a good number of large fruit.  Big Mama has a good, balanced flavor and nice texture, and is a really nice all-purpose tomato.  It has the most seeds of all the varieties, so while still relatively dry in comparison to to true slicers, this one still offers a nice juicy bite to fresh salads in addition to being good for sauce.  As much as I want to make previous years count for something, on this year's performance alone, I have to give it an average grade. Final Grade: C

Amish Paste
Amish Paste is the truest match for Big Mama, and is in every way a superior tomato.  This came as a pleasant surprise to me, considering this was the variety I was least excited about trying in the first place.  The larger tomatoes are more of an oxheart-shape, which makes it good for slicing as well as sauce.  It has a few more seeds than some of the others, but is not quite as juicy as Big Mama can be, and the core of this tomato is nice and solid.  The texture is very smooth and the flavor is balanced.  It was in the middle of the pack when it came to maturity, but it had really nice yields, so I will definitely be growing this one again. Final Grade: A

San Marzano
San Marzano is definitely a paste tomato and not one that is particularly well-suited for fresh eating.  The flavor is mild and sweet, but the flesh is quite dry and has a more mealy texture when fresh, but both flavor and texture improve when cooked down. It has few seeds, but while easy to remove, the cavernous body made me feel a bit cheated in the flesh department.  On the plus side, this tomato was a huge producer, making up for its smaller size with large quantities, but that wasn't quite enough to make up for the average flavor for me.  Honestly, I was expecting a bit more "wow" factor with this tomato, given its huge popularity, but it's also important to keep in mind that there are several different kinds of San Marzano tomatoes (this one was San Marzano No.2).  I probably would not grow this one again, but wouldn't rule out giving a different San Marzano tomato a try.   Final Grade: C

Next Year? 
Clearly I have some good contenders moving forward for a repeat appearance in next year's garden in Amish Paste and Opalka, so, success!  Though don't think for a moment that this little quest is over - I will always be keeping my eyes peeled for another heirloom paste tomato or two to try out.  Suggestions for next year are welcome!

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