2,500 people, lovers of Lycopersicon esculentum, descended on Kendall-Jackson’s Wine Center, a few miles north of Santa Rosa, today, to tease their palates with 184 varieties of heirloom tomato.
This was the 11 Annual Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival and it was the best I’ve yet attended.
More than 60 Bay-area restaurateurs and purveyors of North Coast foods were on hand to feed guests if and when they tired of sampling a tentful of tomatoes, which included such oddball heirlooms as Stump of the World, Fuzzy Bomb, Believe it or Not, Paul Robeson, Julia Child and one called San Francisco Fog. How appropriate.
I tasted through many of the varieties and concluded that the most flavorful and intensely focused tomatoes were the smaller, cherry-sized tomatoes. In particular, I liked three varieties called, in no particular order, Tonadose des Conores, White Rabbit and Sweetie.
Among recognized Bay-area restaurants participating were Nectar, Syrah, Zazu, Brannan’s Grill, and Madrona Manor. Purveyors of fine foods included the Jimtown Store, Bellweather Farms, Aidell’s Sausage, and Bear Republic Brewery.
In case you have been living in a cave the past decade (is Osama Bin Laden with you by any chance…?), heirloom tomatoes are the “hot” fruit in California food circles these days.
The definition of what constitutes an “heirloom tomato” is controversial. For sure, everyone agrees that an heirloom tomato is an open-cultivated cultivar of tomato whose seeds have been handed down over multiple generations. Another rule that everyone upholds: the seeds have never been genetically modified.
Ripe heirloom tomatoes can be green-striped, screaming orange, school-bus yellow, or purple and bruised like a bad black eye. They taste, well, tomato-y in a way that no commercial supermarket “tennis ball” tomato (describing their texture as much as their taste) ever does.
Some growers insist that the seeds for heirloom tomatoes must be more than 100 years old. Others claim that they must be more than 50 years old. There’s a school, too, that claims the seeds only need to go back to the end of World War II, at the outbreak of widespread hybrid breeding by national agricultural seed companies.
As we are at the height of tomato season, walk into any restaurant in Napa Valley just now and you will find a salad made with heirloom tomatoes, usually a mélange of four or five types, chopped or sliced and drizzled with balsamic vinegar and a premium quality extra-virgin olive oil.
The rule for participating restaurants and catering companies at the Heirloom Tomato Festival was that they must prepare dishes with at least one type of heirloom tomato.
I tasted through the soups, dips, sauces, spreads, juices, ices, salads, and sorbets with my son, Jason, and we agreed that the single tastiest item that we had all day was the Blackened, Pulled Pork & Brandywine Tomato concoction, served at the Equus Restaurant booth. Equus is the restaurant at FountainGrove Inn, Santa Rosa. The spicy, bite-sized creation is the work of talented executive chef Jeff Reilly, who was on hand, busily making up samples to keep ever-growing lines of hungry guests moving.
Kendall-Jackson offered wine-food pairing demonstrations throughout the fairgrounds; I thought the attempt to marry K-J Vintner’s Reserve Syrah with a Cherokee Purple Tomato & Caramelized Squash creation, made with Bellweather Farms Pepato (cheese), actually worked well, which you might not anticipate, given the number of zippy ingredients.
The 2,500 or so tickets that are sold each year for the Kendall-Jackson Annual Heirloom Tomato Festival go on sale each July 1. And they mostly disappear before Independence Day, three days later. So mark your calendar for July 1, 2008, to get your tickets for next year's festival. Get them at www.kj.com, or call 800-769-3649. This year, tickets cost $55 each – but for this amount, you get to eat and drink your weight in tomatoes, a small price to pay for tomato glory.