Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tomato taste-off

Last Sunday I was invited to a tomato taste-off, hosted by an avid gardener and friend A.C. Her passion for tomatoes is perhaps equaled only by my passion for wine.

There we were tasting 30-40 different kinds, scoring them with all the seriousness of Robert Parker. I like tomatoes, especially heirlooms, especially fresh from the garden. However, as I started going around the tasting table, to my surprise I was not impressed. Until I got to cherry tomatoes: green grape and black pearl - those stood out - tart, sweet, intense. "Ooh, I like those" I exclaimed. As I continued, while many seemed bland or one-dimensional, a few others stood out as flavorful, complete with requisite tartness and sweetness, and interesting in some way - one tasting more like a lemon, another more meaty. It seemed really obvious which few were the stand-outs. As a tomato novice, I declared my opinion to A.C., considering myself done with the taste-off, and moving on to other activities (such as commandeering a few heirlooms from her over-abundant garden).

Her voice caught me: "Cherry tomatoes always win. It's simple - they are the most intense, and easy to understand - and that is the pattern for all the rest of the tomatoes you picked. However, try this one...", she pointed to another tomato I had dismissed earlier. "This would be good on a burger. And that one...", she pointed again, "would be good on a tart". She went on to explain that various aspects of tomatoes complement specific types of foods, and therefore should not be considered as a dish on their own, but rather in pairing with other ingredients. "This one would be good for stewing in a sauce", she pointed again, "and this is the one I served on top of burrata cheese sprinkled with salt and olive oil a week ago as an appetizer that you loved". Indeed! As I tasted them and identified the specific flavors, it made sense that they would pair with a particular ingredient. And suddently a light bulb went off, and I remembered my own blog post on the difference between wine being a dish and an ingredient.

I went around the tomato table once more, this time appreciating a whole slew of other tomatoes, my enjoyment now fueled by an intellectual understanding rather than only carnal, increasing dramatically from just minutes prior.

And so this seemingly unrelated tomato taste-off unexpectedly triggered a philosophical epiphany not only about appreciating things on a deeper level but also reminding me of humility and learning. How often I see wine newbies going through a tasting linep, being so sure and quick to pronounce what they prefer. And how often after a tasting session with me they leave with the same lesson I re-learned on that sunny Sunday afternoon.

P.S. The final scores clearly reflected the first impressions of the crowd. And while it's hard to argue against deeply flavored food (or drink), do take these with a grain of salt!

Courtesy of the record-keeper Dan who is one person combining my passion for wine with A.C.'s passion for tomatoes: "The sweeter and bigger-flavored tomatoes won, as always. A leaner and more “classic” tomato could be better in a different context—such as a sandwich or burger. But one would not have oaky cabernet with oysters. But that lean and crisp Chablis perfect for the oysters would fall flat next to a big Ribeye steak. Similarly for tomatoes, each one needs to be taken in its context and food pairing."

#1. Green Grape, 13 votes as “best”
#2. Olympic Fire, 11 votes
#3. Black Pearl, 8 votes
#4. German Orange Strawberry, 7 votes
#5. Five way tie with 5/6 votes: Green Giant, Japanese Black Trifele, Lemon Boy, Tim’s Black Ruffle, Phantom du Laos
#6. Others that got more than just a few votes and were liked: Nyageous, Riesentraube, Persimmon



Dan Raveneau Harlander said...

Spectacular post!!! Gary, you have elevated the humble tomato--conidered a weed by many cultures--to rock star status!

Your line "... my enjoyment now fueled by an intellectual understanding rather than only carnal, increasing dramatically from just minutes prior." has me howling with laughter as well as admiration!! You tomato "carnal knowledge" is up there with your Chablis-isms!


Anonymous said...

Fantastic! Reading it, I feel so smug with myself that I fueled your intellectual understanding! Ha Ha!!!!

wine blog said...

Wow! How freakin' amazing is this, a tomato taste-off!! I wish I could have been there, sounds absolutely delicious and a whole lot of fun. A palate lesson too!

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