Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tomato Time

Most grocery stores sell just three or four kinds of tomatoes. Few people have any idea that that there are thousands of varieties grown around the world. Joe Clutz, a part-time farmer in Newberry, grows 97 distinctive types of tomatoes, and a few years back I had the chance to spend an afternoon sampling some of them with him. The husband documented the event, and then ate the subjects along with me. There were rounds, ovals and heart shapes; one that looked like a red chile pepper; and another that showed a starburst center when halved. The names were as colorful as the fruits. We had Snow Whites, Sun Golds, Rainbows, Ukranian Pears, Banana Legs, scallop-edged Ponderosa Reds, grassy flavored Black Plums, tart Cherokee Purples sugary Ground Cherries, herbally Green Zebras, striped Hillbillies, and Yellow Stuffers that looked exactly like bell peppers. We were both wowed by the differences in appearance, texture and taste.

photo by Barney Taxel, Taxel Image Group

You have two opportunities for the same kind of experience. Countryside Farmers' Market at Howe Meadow holds an annual tomato tasting. This year it's happening Aug. 27 from from 9 a.m. until closing at noon. Market manager Beth Stropki Knorr tells me that more than 130 varieties are represented at the market throughout the season, and she expects more than 30 will be available that day. Drop by anytime to pop pieces in your mouth. Individual growers will also be offering bites of their best and will have plenty on hand to sell by the pound. At 9 a.m., food writer Marilou Suszko is your guide through a flight of tomato juices at the cooking demo tent; 30 minutes later staff from The Greenhouse Tavern start slicing and dicing for a “friendly” recipe competition called The Salsa Smackdown. Audience members sample the results, choose the winner and then get to enjoy what’s left of the main ingredient.

September is typically a good month for tomatoes in Northeast Ohio, and Na Olson is hoping the weather gods don’t let her down this year. If there’s enough rain, but not too much and not all at once, and temperatures hold steady, she and husband Cory will have plenty of ripe and ready fruit for their 2011 Tomato Tasting on Sept. 10. It’s held from 3-6 p.m. at The Little Red Truck Farm, in Norwalk, where they grow more than 100 heirloom varieties from seed. “We usually have quite a spread,” she says, and most are types people have never even heard of let alone tried.” She ticks off a list of intriguing names: Mortgage Lifter, Kellogg Breakfast, Golden Monarch, Aunt Ruby’s Germen Green, Zogola, Japanese Black Trifele and Cosmonaut Volkov.

photo by Na Olson

Visitors can taste whatever was picked that morning, but the Olsons do want something in return: your opinion. They ask everyone to complete a rating sheet for each tomato, ranking varieties for sweetness, texture, acidity and overall “tomatoeness.” This helps them decide what to grow, and what not to, in the future. If they have enough of a harvest, tomatoes will be for sale along with other things raised on the property, which you’re invited to explore. The event is open to public and free but donations are appreciated. This year the money raised will go to Heifer International, a nonprofit that provides animals for food and breeding to needy communities around the world as a way to combat hunger. Na’s instructions are to park in the field, walk through the garden (ignore the weeds, or if you’re so inclined, pull a few). I’d add: Bring all your tomato questions. She’s a veritable walking Wikipedia of information and has great stories about some of those names.

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