You say tomato …

Sampling more than 40 varieties at GRUB’s tomato festival

GRUB’s Sherri Simon tends to a buffet of flavors at the annual Tomato Fest.

GRUB’s Sherri Simon tends to a buffet of flavors at the annual Tomato Fest.

photo courtesy of grub cooperative

GRUB Education Program

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What do a pork chop, Abraham Lincoln and Berkeley tie dye have in common? All are the namesakes of tomato varieties, three of the more than 40 grown in and around Chico, and sampled Sunday (Aug. 24) by an eager crowd at the Tomato Fest. After a one-year hiatus, Sherri Scott and her GRUB Education Program crew were back in action for the fifth edition of the normally annual event, which is a fundraiser for the program and, more importantly, said Scott, a great community-builder.

“[Initially], we wanted to do an event … to meet the neighbors,” said Scott, but the festival has grown into a chance for locals to discover new flavors. Participants were asked to sample every type, artfully displayed on several long tables, and then vote for their favorites. “There are people who are afraid at the market, who have never tasted a black, or a green, tomato,” Scott explained as she stood next to several tables filled with finely chopped samples and tomato labels, affixed to wine glasses and fluttering in the breeze. “Ones with different colors have specific profiles: The blacks are more smoky and meaty, the yellow is more fruity, and the green can be more complex.”

Indigo apple tomatoes.

photo by claire hutkins-seda

Smoky and meaty tomatoes? Yes, in fact, Scott claimed one of 2012’s most popular tomatoes, Moskvich, a small red heirloom variety, had “a hint of bacon” that year, but it lacked that meatiness this time around, she said. Nonetheless, it came out on top again, scoring more points than the beautiful hybrid called indigo apple. The indigo is a mostly red, small tomato with black shoulders, and it’s actually considered a blue tomato thanks to its heightened levels of the anthocyanin pigment, which also is present in blueberries. It was a favorite of participant and Chapmantown resident Patti Garron, who grabbed another toothpick to sample it again, in order to describe the flavor correctly: “It’s heavy. It’s got a really rich flavor and it isn’t watery,” she said, standing in the shade of the huge walnut tree at the GRUB Cooperative on Dayton Road. “It’s full-bodied, and I think it would cook down and make a good sauce,” she added.

At the other end of the tables, participant Bryce Ruff ordered a watermelon-mint smoothie and, not surprisingly, a tomato pizza from GRUB Cooperative’s cob oven, and sang praises on the striped Berkeley tie dye, his vote for best tomato. “It seemed like it had the most flavor—a tangy, sweet flavor.”

Participant Syb Blythe voted for the yellow-and-green-striped green zebra, the first green tomato she’d ever tried. “It has a lively, zingy tomato flavor. You wouldn’t think it would taste as tomatoey as it did.” When asked if she had learned anything from the event, she responded confidently: “Don’t be afraid of the weird green and yellow tomatoes!” Blythe entered the concurrent salsa contest, where participants were gobbling up her offering—an old recipe from her days as proprietor of Juanita’s, the long gone, but not forgotten, downtown Chico restaurant/nightclub. Her cilantro-laden entry nabbed second place.

The varieties this year were grown by Scott and other local farms—Farmelot/ Riparia, GRUB CSA Farm and Heartseed Community Farm. And the winners? “Tomato votes [were] all over the place with a few clear winners, but heaviest for sun gold and Moskvich,” Scott reported at the end of the day. Interestingly, both were the heaviest producers in her garden, she noted. Sun gold, the “gateway tomato for kids,” as Scott calls it, is a hyper-sweet almost candy-like cherry tomato, that “is always a winner.”