Quest for Perfect Tomato Stretches From New Jersey to Israel

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The quest for the perfect tomato began in New Jersey nearly 50 years ago and ended, for now, in a field south of Tel Aviv, Israel.

After eight years of taste tests from chefs and tomato lovers, agricultural scientists at Rutgers University say they have resurrected one of the most delicious Jersey tomatoes ever.

The elusive Ramapo tomato seed has been reproduced in Israel and 572,000 certified organic seeds were shipped this month to New Brunswick.

The Ramapo tomato, named after a New Jersey Indian tribe and developed at Rutgers in 1968, will be back for this summer's growing season after an absence of more than 20 years.

In New Jersey, considered to produce some of America's best tomatoes, that is big news.

"People all across the land are frustrated with hard, cardboardy-tasting tomatoes," said Jack Rabin, associate director of the New Jersey agricultural experiment station at Rutgers. "Ramapo gives them something that's an alternative ... that captures that famous Jersey tomato taste."

"Seed companies stopped producing the Ramapo decades ago because commercial farmers sought varieties that grew well in other regions, and the Ramapo did well mostly along the East Coast," Rabin said.

The first major release of more than 8,000 seed packets will be sold by Rutgers in a few weeks, initially to home gardeners like Edmund Ryan of Irasburg, Vermont, who remembers first tasting the variety as a teenager from a neighbor in Red Bank.

"It was just the perfect Jersey tomato," said Ryan, 54, who recalled eating the tomatoes in a sandwich after football practice. "It's nice and tart and sweet but also just had a little extra that I can't explain."

Rutgers scientists have been busy pursuing that holy grail of productivity, good yield and taste in greenhouses and fields, experimenting with 154 varieties, with flavor as the most important characteristic.

"Tomatoes have been an important crop in New Jersey for more than 100 years. Until the 1950s, many were grown for use in tomato products, including soup at the Campbell Soup Co., based in Camden," Rabin said.

After World War II, most of the large-scale commercial farms moved to warmer climates like Florida and California. What remains in New Jersey today are tomatoes for fresh use, at supermarkets, restaurants and farm stands.

"In the 1960s, as transportation improved, breeders introduced new varieties to withstand the rigors of shipping from farm to supermarkets, often at the expense of flavor," Rabin said.

"These firm, shipping varieties that predominate today, even vine-ripened, they leave us wanting in terms of flavor," he said.

"A new process also helped shipping: picking the tomatoes green and exposing them to ethylene gas to ripen and turn red to allow for longer transportation and shelf life," said Martha A. Mutschler, a professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell.

She said the problem in taste comes when the tomatoes are picked immature green, and they can't fully ripen.

"One reason tomatoes don't taste good is because they are picked too soon," she said. Another reason is that people refrigerate them.

"Of course, it's a matter of palate as well. Tomato lovers are passionate and often go without them during the winter, when they're not in season."

"The flavor is the most important thing, you know," said chef Andre Soltner, who sold his legendary New York restaurant, Lutece, and teaches at the French Culinary Institute in New York. "When I cannot get good tomatoes with flavor," I don't use them.

For Lucky Lee, co-owner of Lucky's Real Tomatoes in Brooklyn, New York, which trucks ripe tomatoes during the winter from Florida back to New York in a day's turnaround, good tomatoes are also a source of nostalgia.

"It reminds you of a different time, a more natural way of living before additives and chemicals were put in everything we eat to make it last longer," she said. "It's a simpler life, a nicer life."

The Ramapo tomato has elicited that nostalgia on tomato message boards from gardeners clamoring for the seeds.

It will grow well in New Jersey, but in other Mid-Atlantic states too, said its developer, Bernard Pollack. He started working on it in 1960 and is now a retired professor of plant breeding and genetics living in California.

Because the variety is an F-1 hybrid, gardeners cannot save the seeds and replant them, expecting to recapture the same Ramapo with sweet-acid flavor.

"Instead, seeds must be pollinated by hand, usually by a seed company which does the labor-intensive work of crossing the two parent lines," Pollack said. The original parents were still at Rutgers.

The Jersey Tomato working group at Rutgers, made up of economists, breeders, horticulturists and plant pathologists and first convened in 2000, will present its findings about the Ramapo Tuesday in Atlantic City.

"Once they decided to reintroduce the Ramapo, they found a seed company in Israel, which has a winter growing season, to replicate them at a good price," Rabin said. "They will be distributed to home gardeners and later to some commercial farmers to test them."

"As word gets out about the particular Ramapo tomato, there's going to be a huge demand for it across the country," said Paul Wigsten, farm liaison and produce buyer for the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

Wigsten has never tasted a Ramapo, but has heard about the lore.

"This will be a big day for tomato lovers. It's real gratifying to see Rutgers concentrating more on flavor than on any other characteristic of the tomato," he said.