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Juicy Fruit

An astonishing array of heirloom tomatoes makes a splash at two festivals.

a basket of heirloom tomatoes, image
Photo caption
Farmer markets are a good place to search out various types of heirloom tomatoes.

A love apple a day keeps the doctor away

One tomato supplies 35 calories and almost half of your daily vitamin C requirement. Tomatoes are a source of vitamin A and the minerals iron and potassium. In 1995, Harvard researchers found a tomato-rich diet to be associated with decreased risk of prostate cancer—due, they believe, to lycopene, the substance that lends the fruit its color. The American Institute for Cancer Research says antioxidants like lycopene protect the body's cells from aging damage.

If the colors of the West, as author Jessamyn West contended, are "the colors of earth, sunlight, and ripeness," then a plump, juice-gorged tomato might be the perfect regional symbol. Few crops approach the taste equivalent of earth and sun that bursts forth from a bite of ripe tomato. Of course, we're talking about a tomato that has not traveled much farther than an arm's length from the vine.

California, to be sure, coaxes bushels of the other tomato from its sun-drenched valleys, producing 90 percent of the nation's processed tomatoes (for canning and prepared foods) and almost 50 percent of the fresh tomatoes (a misnomer, since most are picked green). The commercial Lycopersicon esculentum is a predictable variety bred to stand up to the rigors of traveling. Trucks are piled high with tomatoes that can survive the weight of 25,000 pounds. Now that's some thick skin.

No matter how you dice them, these rough-and-ready ones can never rival their ripe-and-ready cousins. Which is one reason that 85 percent of America's home gardeners grow their own tomatoes. Those of us who can't grow our own are still lucky, though. Demand for a more giving tomato that upon the slightest provocation from our teeth explodes into a tart, juicy episode is fueling a revolution.

Everyone I speak to remembers this fragile tomato and, pardon the expression, sees red because markets largely supply us with hard, lackluster spheres. And everyone remembers, as I do, a grandparent (or parent or neighbor) who grew the world's slurpiest, tastiest tomato.

This collective memory of standing, salt shaker in hand, in some lost garden of earthly delight has inspired small growers and some big growers to cultivate tomatoes for flavor, not tensile strength. The quiet, colorful revolution is best witnessed June through November at local farmers' markets, natural food stores, and at either of two annual festivals in Northern California.

Last September, when harvest- time was at its height, I attended the TomatoFest at Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley. This lively event, July 30 this year is (like the one held at Santa Rosa's Kendall-Jackson Wine Center, September 9), frolicsome with music, cooking demonstrations, and a bounty of local wines and tomato dishes. Its capacity crowd of 1,200 includes people from as far away as New Jersey. For tomato devotees, the main attraction is the tasting at altarlike tables spread ceremoniously with bite-size offerings of 200 varieties of heirloom tomatoes (open-pollinated varieties passed down through generations). I took my place in the long shuffling queue, speared my first tender morsel called ace and anointed my tongue with what tasted like a ray of hope for the tomato. Savoring its depth of flavor next to the market-driven version is like drinking cabernet sauvignon next to jug wine.

"Over the last 35 years, heirlooms began losing ground to commercial hybrids," says Gary Ibsen, who originated the TomatoFest to help reverse that trend. Ibsen, author of The Great Tomato Book (Ten Speed Press), grows tomatoes in Yuma, Modesto, and San Juan Bautista, and is quick to note that good hybrids needn't be run out of town by heirlooms. "Three excellent hybrids," he says, "are big beef, lemon boy, and orange sungold cherry."

But if you arrive at these festivals with only visions of time-honored hybrids—beefsteak, early girl—you're in for a wild sensory awakening. Joining the red, yellow, and orange varieties are purple-black, blue, green, and white ones. Shape and size run from sprawling globes to shapely pear, plum, cherry, and currant; some are smooth, others are ruffled or pleated like a pumpkin. The tomatoes are segregated by color, which helps cooks match them with wines. Judy Walker, a consultant to Kendall-Jackson, says, "Lighter colored tomatoes tend to complement lighter colored wines and darker tomatoes pair with darker wines."

But most of us had brought clean palates for the experience of pure tomatoness. The range and complexity of flavor was even more staggering than the rainbow of colors. Like wine, each varietal expressed its variables—acid, sugar, fruit—in a new, surprising pattern.

In the orange varietals, I tasted everything from persimmon and papaya to squash and carrot; the green varieties were laced with hints of lemon and other citrus; in the red tomatoes were suggestions of pomegranate, earthen minerals.

A woman in line urged me to taste an orange striped wedge called amana. It was spry, with a spike of citron and a mellow finish. The Paul Robeson, developed by a fan of the singer in Russia, was rich and robust like Robeson's voice.

After my taste buds had a private audience with every variety, I turned to the feast where more than three dozen chefs had interpreted the vegetable-like fruit's affinity for everything from strong aromatics, like brash and cunning chil-ies, to mild foods, like white beans and delicate buffalo-milk mozzarella. The lifeblood of Latin and Mediterranean cooking, tomatoes have long served as a hearty basis for ingredient-rich soups and stews, such as bouillabaisse, gazpacho, and ratatouille; for pasta and pizza sauces; and for salsas. At the festival, chefs had spun them in new directions—a tomato-truffle jus for risotto; a tomato-infused polenta; in pancakes with balsamic syrup; in cobblers and scones with tomato jam; in towers with olives and smoked cheese; and even in desserts—fruit compote, napoleons, and ice cream.

Tomatoes have certainly evolved from their wild days in the Peruvian Andes, where the berry-size fruit was first found. The cultivated fruit as we know it today was developed in Mexico. It reached the Old World with the conquistadores between 1504 and 1544 and for a long time was misunderstood. Germans called it "apple of paradise," Italians, "apple of gold" (it was yellow then) or "apple of love" (another aphrodisiac to them). The British called it poison, a case of failed logic: The tomato is in the same family as deadly nightshade, or belladonna.

Food historian Clifford Wright, author of the exhaustive Mediterranean Feast (William Morrow) says the first written evidence of the tomato's use in cooking appears in 1692 in Antonio Latini's Modern Carver, a recipe for salsa di pomadoro, alla spagnuola. It preceded by a century the pasta sauce we know and love today, which first appeared, Wright says, in 1790, in Leonardi's Modern Apicius.

Unlike, say, arugula or eggplant, tomatoes have long been a mainstay in American cookery—where would BLTs, Manhattan clam chowder, or the California burger be without them? As their original goodness is restored, so is their status among great chefs. California cuisine progenitor Alice Waters, who brightens salads with the striped green zebra, orders tomatoes from 15 different small vendors in California for her Chez Panisse restaurant. The caprese salad—vinaigrette-dressed tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil—is no longer just in Italian restaurants, but widely found in high- and middlebrow establishments.

Their prolific usage might explain why tomatoes, even though often hum-drum, are a major crop in California. If you've been subsisting all year on the poor relations, take your taste buds for an awakening this summer to Carmel Valley or Santa Rosa.

Heirloom Tomato Salad

Chef Ed Walsh created this colorful salad at Kendall-Jackson Wine Center, where heirloom tomatoes are grown amid organic fruits, herbs, and vegetables.

Serves 6

1/2 cup chopped, pitted green olives

1 clove garlic

1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley

1 tbs. each fresh oregano, thyme

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

4 tbs. white balsamic vinegar
juice of one lemon


4 medium-size, ripe heirloom tomatoes, quartered

10-15 cherry tomatoes, halved

1 English cucumber, peeled and cubed

1/2 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced

1/2 cup mixed basil leaves

1 cup feta cheese, cubed

1 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Tapenade: Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until blended.

Salad: In a large bowl, toss together all salad ingredients. Divide salad onto six plates and dress each with some tapenade.

Photos by Paul Bousquet, Gary Ibsen, and Terry McCarthy

This article was first published in July 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.