Sunday, August 07, 2005

TomatoMania Tomato Tasting

Yesterday Plant-A-Porter held their annual tomato tasting TomatoMania at the nearby commnity gardens in Encino. They've held a number of these things but this is the first one I've been able to make. It's a great oppor-tunity to sample things you haven't grown yet to see what you might want to include in the future. Soooo, what follows probably falls into the cate-gory of "Too Much Information" for anybody else but it's stuff I want to be able to reference and remember next Spring.

I would estimate that they had 35 or more varieties of tomatoes that were supplied by the attendees. There was, as you could guess, a lot of certain things like Sungolds and single examples of some other things. There was also a whole table of "Mystery" tomatoes. And (and I found this amusing as hell) it was popular! There were a lot of people tasting and comparing these mystery tomatoes. OK. If you enjoy a good tomato then you enjoy a good tomato. But how are you going to plant a "mystery" tomato? ...which is the point, I think, of these things. Or mabbee not — it's a powerful excitement this business of bringing your own produce out of the earth. And maybe equally powerful to share and appreciate it!

The set up was simple: tables of 5-8 paper plates indentified with the tomato variety on them; furnished with salt & pepper, napkins, toothpicks, plastic knives and saltine crackers. If it could have been improved, it would have been in the area of organization. People might have been invited in to see the selection of whole tomatoes while new entries were collected and plated. Then they might have been escorted outside for a time while one crew inside chopped up the samples and another outside regaled the assembled with a summary/promotion of what TomatoMania is about,the relative merits of heirlooms vs. hybrids, how voting for favorites would go. ...anything to create some time for the inside crew. But I think it would be worth it to ensure that more people got to taste more of what was available. The advantage of increasing the odds that everyone got to taste everything is that the results of the voting would be more reliable. As it was, I saw one man eat half of a popular Green Zebra when only two were offered for tasting. But with no guidelines and knifes available to take samples of whatever size, it was bound to happen. What's more, each person having to saw off their own segments slowed things down and caused a lot of congestion at some tables. But that's just one thought and another was that it was not only fun but it could save me years of experimenting by planting.

So! Let's see 'em! This is by no means all of the offerings or even the best. It's what appealed to me and what I was able to get photos of. It's also worth noting that, for some reason, the colors didn't photograph very accurately. I'll try to correct the misrepresentation in the text but keep in mind that those tablecloths and paper plates should be a clear, true red. If that's not what you're seeing, then the color of the tomatoes won't be reliable either. In alphabetical order:

Amish Gold Lovely but I've never been particularly interested in plum tomatoes.

Anna Russian This is a tomato Carolyn Male recommends in her book 100 Heirloom Tomatoes for the American Garden. I am very fond of Black from Tula, Southern NIghts and Paul Robeson (other Russian tomatoes) so I was anxious to try it. My personal opinion: it was fine but it's not one I'll make space for.

Giant Valentine A graceful, unusual shape and lovely color — a clear pink that's not as intense as this pic. I didn't get to taste it but I wish I had been able to.

Goldie Another one I didn't get back fast enough to try but the color is very promising.

Green Zebra This is the tomato that Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley made famous. For several years it's been one of the standard bearers for the concept of modern American heirlooms. This one, as so many others are, was picked before it matured. It would have become a rich amber with dark green stripes and it would have developed much more flavor. I've always wondered if Alice Waters was referring to ripe ones or immature ones when she recommended them... No matter — I don't much care for them ripe OR immature. I'm glad I grew 'em once but I won't again.

Japanese Trifle Black The color is too saturated in this pic. Although the tomatoes had an deep dark color and are named "black" they weren't nearly this dark. I would have like to try them since so many people really like Japanese tomatoes but they were gone by the time I got back to them.

Large Oxheart OK, so I'm not impossible to please. I thought this tomato was terrific. It had the full, sharp flavor I've noted in other heart-shaped tomatoes in the past. I would consider planting this one next year but one concern is that these oxheart-shaped plants tend to have lower yields. Also worth noting is the fact that this is another photo that's much too saturated. This tomato actually had a pink color. And, in person and able to see it from different vantage points, it really DOES look like a flaccid heart!

Marianna's Peace The color is not entirely accurate on this one but not too bad either. Marianna's Peace is quite new. I think seeds have only been in circulation for a few years. It was the "must have" plant last year and the previous one so I was especially pleased to get to try it. Although I can see why people liked it, I found it on the sweet and somewhat watery side.

Matt's Wild Cherry When you look at these you have to imagine a bright primary red. They were the only currant sized tomatoes at the tasting. Currant tomatoes can pack a real wallop of flavor and Matt's Wild Cherries certainly did. In spite of the fact that they grow wild all along Texas roadsides, people are willing to pay for them nonetheless. Sounds good, no? I had looked forward to trying them at last! I can see why people who like sweet tomatoes would like them — they are very, very sweet. So much so, in fact, that I'm wondering if you dried them, if they would work almost like a savory/sweet raisin. It's an intriguing idea and if I had enough space I might grow some just to try it. You can also see from the photo what a productive plant it must be — that was only 1 or 2 clusters!

Odoriko Here is the pink Odoriko that is always so popular at Sperling Nursery where I buy many of my plant. I think Odoriko is a hybrid — I've never heard of a Japanese heirloom. I've never grown it and I really wanted to try it. But, being the only one offered for tasting it was gone before I got back to that table.

Orange Strawberry This is a very nice tomato that I'd compare favorably to Kellogg's Breakfast. I don't think I'd plant them both but, if some year Kellogg's Breakfast wasn't available, I'd go looking for an Orange Strawberry instead. The grower had taken the time to print out some helpful information but, unfortunately, it was a late entry and the tasting, with hungry crowds looming, was already underway so it wasn't possible to read or photo the sheet you can see under the plate. I'm hoping Plant-A-Porter will include these tips in their summary of growing experiences.

Roughwood Golden Tiger Is this is beautiful tomato? It certainly is! So why can't I remember a single thing about it? =o Rats!!! But I'm glad to have the pic...

Spear's Tennessee Green This is dramatic, isn't it? It was quite a nice tomato with a good balance between the acid and the sugar but I don't remember the special "spicy" flavor that some green tomatoes have.

Striped Roman This tomato was a lot brighter than it looks. Picture primary red striped with pale primary orange. If it weren't last in alphabetical order I might have saved it for last anyway because it was so dramatic. It's got my vote for absolutely the most beautiful tomato there. The flavor was a little on the sweet side for me but still very nice. If I were going to grow a plum tomato this would be the one I'd go looking for!

There were other tomatoes worth noting that I didn't get to take pictures of. One was called Argentine and the reason I didn't get a picture of it was because the table was mobbed and tasters were calling across the room to get more friends to come and taste. I'm betting it will turn out to be the most popular of the event. It was a red globe tomato and it was one that I'd pass on. It was way, way too sweet for me. I hadn't heard of it before but I expect it will develop a reputation.

I didn't get a photo of Cherokee Chocolate Green either. By the time I got to it it was seeds and jelly. But that was some tasty seeds and jelly! It's amazing how many variations on Cherokee Purple are showing up. I think I'd almost grow anything that included "Cherokee" in its name if it wasn't already so popular a variety that you can pick them up at Whole Foods or the farmers' markets. As reliably delicious and full-bodied a tomato it is, I think I'll give my garden space to plants that are more productive.

I really regret that I didn't get a picture of Northern Lights. This would probably have fallen into the category of "whites". It was a large beefsteak of pale yellow flecked with pale pink. It's flavor was delicate, as the lighter fruit are, but well-balanced. Northern Lights is one I will definitely look for next year.

So what did I learn? First, I absolutely — counter to prevailing tastes — prefer my tomatoes on the acid side. I'm turned off by sweet tomatoes au natur but I wonder if I should give them more consideration for grilling where that natural sugar could enhance caramelization. Second, and related to this, in the future when looking to experiment with an unfamiliar variety I'll weight claims about "Taste Test Winners" against that fact that I'm looking for different flavor than most people. That will help me save some time in future seasons, I think. And, third, I learned that I want to add Large Oxheart, Northern Lights and Striped Roman to my garden next year.

Finally, a word about that lovely arrangement at the top of this post. I saw a woman putting the finishing touches on it as I was leaving the event. I'm not sure if she was one of the planners who arrived late or a "taster" who was wonderfully ambitious in her presentation. Whatever! It was fantastic! Much too beautiful to spoil by tasting. Note the vivid green ribbon she used to identify "Lime Green Salad" and Pink "Brandywine". What flair!


Blogger Barbara said...

I love the look of the Valentine. Are all the heirloom tomatoes grown from original seed or are GE or GM methods used? Please escuse my ignorance - you can see I don't garden!

8:03 PM  
Blogger Rainey said...

Oh my goodness, barbara! You're waaay ahead of me! I'll still be inputting this info for days! ;>

There were many very interesting looking fruit at this event. Valentine was certainly one of them. Many of the varieties I saw are also completely new to me so I don't actually know, without doing some research, which are heirloom/heritage and which might be hybrids.

I'm not sure what you mean by GE or GM methods but I'm guessing (and this is purely a guess based on knowing that TomatoMania began as a very high profile sale of tomato seedlings) that they were raised from seedlings grown in nurseries. OTOH, those "mystery" tomatoes were most likely either volunteers that came up by themselves or seedlings whose tags went missing.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Oh dear. I misspelt excuse on my original post.

Matt's Wild Cherry look gorgeous.

I meant genetically modified or genetically engineered.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Rainey said...

Ahhhhh! Genetic modifications! No, you won't see any of that with heirloom tomatoes. Heirlooms are the spontaneously occurring hybrids that have stabilized so that their seeds will produce offsprings that resemble the parent plants. To be properly called an heirloom a plant has to have been stable for 50 years. And 50 years ago I don't think anyone was dreaming about things like genetic modifications and engineering!

Some very wonderful tomatoes are hybrids but they are the work of growers who cross well-established varieties in conventional, time honored ways to get unique new varieties. Each generation must be planted from the seeds of these crosses. I guess, technically, that's genetic engineering of a sort. But nothing too science fiction or "radiated" as some commercial foods now are.

Green Zebra is one of these hybrids. I notice I erroneously referred to it as an heirloom. Other hybrids that I plant every year are Dona and Carmello — red, globe tomatoes that I grow for the reliable great flavor and high yield that give me the "insurance" to experiment in the rest of my garden.

I can see why the unusual and sometimes dramatic appearance could make you think that they're not "natural". In fact, there's a lot more diversity in nature than we capitalize on or even permit. That's why there are organizations trying to promote the preservation of plant diversity. And when you see all these wonderful things, you just gotta be grateful to them!

5:20 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Thanks for the explanation Rainey. Almost a post on its own.

10:51 PM  
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