Author: Silver, Johanna
Date published: August 1, 2012
Barb Stuckey has a favorite summer dinner, while her fiancé digs into a grilled rib-eye on their patio in Healdsburg, California, she'll have a giant, meaty, vine-ripened tomato. That's her main course.
"They're nature's perfect food," says Stuckey, a professional food developer whose recent book, Taste What You're Missing (Free Press, 2012; $26), explains how to sharpen your sense of flavor. "No other fruit has all five tastes - bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and savory umami - let alone in such perfect balance."
Today's tomatoes - the vine-ripened, locally grown kind - strike totally different notes on the tongue than the uniform red balls once ubiquitous in grocery stores, Stuckey says. The latter, a product of large-scale agriculture, were bred not for flavor but to withstand mass handling and cross-country trips. They're no substitute for rib-eye. And they played no part in creating the tomato frenzy evident today, with people crowding into farmers' markets for the latest variety. An example: The Santa Monica Farmers Market doubled the sale of local tomatoes between 2000 and 2010, and last year the market sold about 400,000 pounds of what has become a summer obsession.
Northern California can take a lot of the credit for this taste revolution, starting with the Tasting of Summer Produce, an annual event that began in 1983 and lasted through the decade. Guided by Sibella Kraus, then a cook at Chez Panisse, it brought in good fruits and vegetables (tough to come by in those days) directly from the farm, and it introduced chefs and food buyers for grocery stores to all kinds of great-tasting produce, including vine-ripe tomatoes. "It was a knockout," says San Francisco author Joyce Goldstein, who is working on a book about California culinary history. "It's what turned the tide."
Chefs also started asking for Italian and French tomato varieties they'd tasted abroad. The problem, says Andy Griffin of Santa Cruz County's Mariquita Farm and a top supplier to chefs, was the availability of seeds back then. "Seeds like that weren't for sale."
Enter the seed sleuths: Renee Shepherd, of Renee's Garden Seeds in Felton, California; and Georgeanne Brennan and Charlotte Glenn of Le Marché Seeds in Dixon, California. In the mid-1980s, they began tracking down the seeds in Europe. "I used to call people up and write letters, and I used telex a lot in those days," Shepherd remembers. She would fly to Italy and France and walk through seed-company gardens that were, she says, "like living catalogs of all of their varieties." She'd taste, choose, and bring sample seeds home to try; if she liked the results, she would order more for customers. "The Europeans found it intriguing," Shepherd says. "No one from America was doing this." At the same time, she and others were also locating U.S. growers of heirloom tomatoes (varieties that have remained the same for at least 50 years).
What may sound obvious was very much a pioneering effort by these seed finders. "It was the beginning of us building a food culture in this country," says Shepherd. "There was this intense feedback loop between chefs, small growers, and us." As a star in that loop, the tomato started opening people's eyes - and their palates - to a world of better-tasting food. And they wanted more.
The farmers who were growing for chefs also brought their new tomatoes to farmers' markets. By the mid-1990s, markets throughout California, Oregon, and Washington were selling never-beforeseen varieties. And other tomato pioneers like Gary Ibsen· - whose heirloom tomato festival ran from 1991 to 2008, in Carmel, California - helped get the word out too.
Not that a good tomato necessarily has to be an heirloom.
"Look no further than [the hybrid] Sun Gold, the little orange cherries that everyone goes nuts for," Shepherd says. What matters most to the taste of a tomato - what really matters - is that it is a variety (whether heirloom or hybrid) that's been bred for flavor and allowed to ripen on the vine.
Vine-ripened tomatoes, though, have some drawbacks when it comes to distribution: a short shelf life and fragility. So they have to be grown locally and picked in season. To meet the ever-increasing demand, farmers all over the West are planting a huge diversity of seeds for local markets. The most successful have found the right growing spots and the varieties that thrive there, and have honed their techniques.
Annamarie and Kevin Klippenstein of Klippels Organics, for instance, have been farming for the past 10 years in British Columbia's Similkameen Valley, Canada's only desert. That dry heat keeps disease down. The long days don't hurt either. In summer, when it's light for roughly 15 hours a day, the plants grow like weeds.
When the Klippensteins started growing heirlooms eight years ago, customers thought the tomatoes were strange, says Annamarie. But when she and Kevin brought the Purple Prince to the market and handed those tomatoes out for free, everything changed. Annamarie remembers customers saying things like "What did you give me last week? I want more of that. I don't know what I've been eating the last 30 years of my life, but I'm pretty sure I've never actually had a tomato." The Klippensteins now grow more than 250 varieties of heirlooms.
Elaine Granata, of Denver's Granata Farms, ditched the corporate life for a farm in the city that supplies tomatoes, and other produce, to a handful of Denver's top restaurants such as Olivéa, Il Posto, and Tables. Urban farming, by definition, keeps the distance from farm to plate very short. "The fruits are still warm from the field when I deliver them," Granata says. And the chefs notice the difference. "Well take anything she grows/' says Amy Vitale, chef-owner at Tables. "Her tomatoes say, 'Welcome to summer.'"
Joe Schirmer, a former competitive surfer, earned celebrity status in the San Francisco Bay Area with his dry-farmed Early Girl, a hybrid tomato. His coastal farm near Santa Cruz, Dirty Girl Produce, is warm enough to ripen a tomato, but cool and foggy enough that no irrigation besides rainfall is required. Dry-farming, introduced to California's Central Coast by Molino Creek Farm, not only saves water but also concentrates flavor. When Early Girl is dry-farmed, says Schirmer, "the plants totally freak out." He explains why: "They make this last-ditch effort to go to seed, and every last bit of energy goes into that fruit. Suddenly, they take on this extra-earthy taste. People go nuts for these tomatoes." Bonus points; Early Girls are thick-skinned enough to ship, making them the rare exception to the local-is-better rule.
While farmers are always searching for better flavor, so too are eaters. We have changed the market. "Americans have tended to like mild and sweet but are finally starting to have a palate for spicy and sharp. We want punchier flavors," Shepherd says.
Now that we're all part of the feedback loop, imagine where our tastebuds will lead us.