Sunday, August 29, 2010

The great heirloom tomato taste-off of 2010

Second year in a row, tomato frenzy goes into overdrive in an otherwise quiet corner of the Bay Area in Santa Clara, where the tomato goddess Ann-Charlotte (aka AC) throws the annual tomato taste-off extravaganza from the fruits grown by herself and by her fellow urban gardeners. When I think tomatoes, I tend to think Italian wine, and indeed, Italian wines provided a symbiotic backdrop to the unbridled glory of yesterday. This time of year, I like to prepare zucchini fresh out of my garden, as I find it goes well with tomatoes and light and tart Italian reds, like Produttori del Barbaresco Langhe Nebbiolo 2008 shown below.

The giant striped heirloom zucchini from my garden went into this delicious Zucchini Gratin recipe from The Barefoot Contessa cookbook, which I jazzed up by a healthy helping of organic cayenne pepper.

Crisp, chilled Italian whites are excellent to whet the appetite or as accompaniment to tomato snacking. (I admit I cheat a little by pre-tasting some tomatoes before the official proceedings commence.) Inexpensive wines from Sudtirol/Alto-Adige and Friuli, with their fantastic minerality and refreshing citrus flavors, such as this Moscato Giallo from Manincor (a totally dry Muscat wine, unlike the more common Moscato d'Asti, the sweet sparkling wine from Piedmonte) are totally under the radar of the average wine consumer, and that's a pity.

Last year, AC taught me to appreciate tomatoes in a whole new way. She also supplied 20 different kinds of heirloom seedlings for my own garden this past Spring. Keeping all the varieties straight is no easy feat. But thanks to the taste-off, I can now put the tomato faces to the names, confirm my faves, and come next Spring, re-request my beloved varieties from the tomato goddess.

It's been a cold growing season in Palo Alto (sounds funny "growing season in Palo Alto", where we have a new high-tech start-up on every corner). Finally by late August, most heirlooms started ripening, but there are still plenty of tomatoes slowly maturing on the vines. Other than requiring patience, I quite like the cooler whether, because the ripening is spread more evenly throughout the season, just a few heirloom babies every day from my twenty or so plants. In grape growing, a longer growing season is usually a very good thing, if it doesn't get ruined by early autumn rain - long hang-time allows the fruit the get extra complexity. Could it be the same for tomatoes?

No matter what, we always find time to play with AC's gorgeous Persian kitties.

AC takes her tomato competition very seriously. And her attitude infects the eager crowd. After all the chopping, tagging and plating is done, and the myriad of red, dark, striped, orange, yellow, green, and everywhere-in-between specimens are arranged on the long table, the feeding & judging "frenzy" ensues.

Here are my favorite tomato varieties, in the order of loving:

1. Large Brown Boar.

2. Green Zebra.

3. Momotaro. This innocuous looking Japanese tomato packs a flavorful karate punch.

4. Green Grape. This innocent looking baby explodes in your mouth with kaleidoscope of flavors.

5. Purple Jasper (my wife's fave, too mushy for me).

6. Purple Lipstick. This one is a classic, and can often be found at farmer's markets or supermarkets.

In retrospect, it seems that striped tomatoes tend to get more complex and balanced between tang and sweetness. Juicy, non-mushy texture is important. Not to mention the visual appeal of the stripes. In fairness, gotta give credit to some of the yellow and orange colored tomatoes too, like Phantom du Laos, Pineapple, Amana Orange, Dr. Wyche's and Olympic Fire - not as multi-dimensional as the above #1 through #6, they are nonetheless an amazing complement to salads where other ingredients fill in the missing flavors and textures. And even the tomatoes with shyer tastes come alive when sprinkled with a pinch of sea salt.

Tomatoes are also delicious in jams, of all things! Last year AC, Rona, and several other friends canned a few different tomato-based jams. Shown here are Lemon Tomato Lemongrass jam and Tomato Shiso jam.

With tomatoes, as with wine, I put high premium of acidity. Not so with many other folks who prefer sweeter sensation.
Here is the official tally from about 30 raters:
Winners (# of best in class votes, # of best in show votes):

1. Momotaro, 12, 3. This Japanese baby came out of nowhere to steal the show. I'd never even heard of it, not to mention spelling it.
2. Green Grape 10, 3 (last year's winner)
3. Black Pearl 9, 0 (last year's #3)

4. Black Chocolate 8,2. With a name like that, what's not to love!

5. Green Zebra 8,1
6. Dr. Wyche's 8,0

7. Large Brown Boar 6,2
...then things fall off a cliff

On another perfect Palo Alto Sunday, 75 degrees and blue skies, as I am finishing up this post, I am about to head over to my "end of summer" neighborhood party thrown each season by the vivaciously gracious Anne & Eric Harrison. Living in a classy corner of Palo Alto, I have to bring something classy (besides myself). What else but a panzanella salad from fresh cut heirlooms from my garden, along with a bottle of a cool Italian wine! Salute!


Wes Barton said...

Some of those aren't technically heirlooms, as they are recent hybrids. While it's common for people to lazily misuse that term, hardcore tomato geeks use OP (for open pollinated), which means it's a stabilized cross.

Momotaro is an Asian commercial hybrid (ala Sungold and Sunsugar). I'd suspect it isn't stable.

Large Brown Boar was bred by East Bay hobby breeder Brad gates, who sells his toms at some East Bay farmers markets as Wild Boar Farms. He also bred Berkeley Tie Dye, which is probably the world's best looking tom.

Green Grape and Green Zebra were bred by hobbyist Tom Wagner (25 years ago). Unfortunately, he feels betrayed by the seed sellers who refuse to pay him royalties, so he hasn't released any more of his crosses.

AC said...

That zucchini gratin was amazing!!!!!

AC said...

Awesome! Christian will be happy to see that "Purple Lipstick" made your list. In the famous words of Brad Gospe "that tastes like a Safeway tomato", but even though this one may not taste like one, it is and no one will ever no know its real name (if it has one)!

sə-məl-ˈyā said...

the tomatoes look amazing! savory, sweet, meaty, heirloom...what diversity and individuality.

"and this winner is!..." the (iron)y of your post is that while on the surface it appears to be a celebration of nature's goodness, diversity and individuality, it really expresses a left-brain compulsion to dissect this goodness into pieces and rank american, so silicon valley...this is what industrial food companies do with focus groups when developing their next gmo which (iron)ically got us to where we are today.

time to evolve a bit...

Dan Raveneau said...

GREAT TASTE OFF!!! Wes, occasionally a hybrid will surprise you with good flavor, I have had some nice surprises! Gary, I am on Chrome at work now, capchas work, yeahhhhhhhhhh!

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