A week (or two) in tomatoes

Sep 28, 2012 / By Serena
Posted in East Bay / Food / Garden Maven / Good Ideas / Guinda, Yolo / Ingredients / Magazine / North Bay / Oakland / Santa Rosa / Travel |

Ah September, the time of year when the tastiest tomatoes abound. The soil has its last hurrah of dry sturdiness before the dewy mornings of fall, and the strained vines give their last drop of energy into the sweet fruit. No defense, August, you are nice for tomatoes, too, but I can say that my last two weeks have been particularly marvelous in the tomato department.

It started with my own backyard harvest of tomatoes: ananas noir, or black pineapple tomatoes, san marzano, ethiopian black, isis candy, bloody butcher, and tiny yellow coyote, which a friend pointed out had a most wonderful smoky flavor. By mid-to-late September I finally get a plentiful crop. I needed a little help from the farmers market to get enough to put up for the year, but I did manage a dozen quarts of paste-type tomatoes – San Marzanos and Opalka – so far!
In learning recently that Monsanto now owns the supremely sweet Early Girl, I sadly avoided those this season, trying as I might to find a replacement in the sweet Bloody Butcher and buying Japanese varieties like Momotaro and Oridoko that are medium-sized but heavier than most tomatoes twice their size.
My galavanting has been tomato-kissed as well. Last week I had a shared a splendid spread inside dog-friendly Westfield Center in downtown San Francisco at Cupola’s Pizzeria, one of the newer restaurants in Bradley Ogden and partner’s Lark Creek Restaurant Group. Chef Christian Hermsdorf is quite stellar at coaxing out the richness of san marzanos for his marinara sauce, which graces the handkerchef pasta dish, the sumptuous lamb meatballs, and of course tops his stone-fired pizzas.  It is such good sauce you don’t need cheese, my favorite of the pies was the deceptively simple Marinara, with fresh and dried oregano. Bring friends and share his on-going “La Festa di tutti le Feste,” or the feast of all feasts, where for $30 a person he brings out family-style dishes one upon another until you tell him to stop. It’s a smattering of the seasonal antipasti, a soup course, several pasta dishes, pizza, and dessert – you can request more of something or a certain dish you want to try, like the lemon-y calamari fritti I sought after. It really is the feast of feasts.
There was another great talk at the restaurant Oliveto, in their “It’s Complicated” series, this time featuring local food distribution rock star Bill Fujimoto and Tim Mueller of Riverdog Farm. I’m boggled by the lengths these guys go through to get good tasting tomatoes to eaters. Tim has 65 year-round employees, each of whom get full health care benefits, so they care about the farm and can pick produce to Oliveto’s chef Jonah Rhodehamel’s specifications, and other attention-to-detail chefs. Farmers loose up to 20% of their crop when they pick tomatoes at full ripeness, plus it requires revisiting the plants four and five times to pick. Inefficiency is the mother of good taste. My favorites at this tasting were the ananas noir – no surprise – but I also liked the pucker-y sweetness of Aunt Ruby’s German, both the green and the red. It was interesting to learn that many of the tomatoes in those low-priced bins of heirloom tomatoes are actually not heirlooms, like Lemon Boy, a indeterminate hybrid. Also, many of them are picked white or greenish, before their identity can be revealed. This way you get more tomatoes reliably to market, but you loose in the flavor department, big time.
Really, the best way to have a great tomato experience is to get your tomatoes from a farmers market, at a local CSA, or at a good restaurant where relationships with the farmers are fostered. If farmers know that their tomatoes are going to be bought, they can harvest them at the peak of ripeness and deliver them directly. Having said that, I also attended the East Bay launch of Farmigo, who has a new Oakland pick-up location at La Borinquena. This is a new distribution system that gets farm fresh products to a location near you. You order direct from the farm and pick up in a convenient spot – the best part is, this is a system that is spreading around the country, not just another one of those Bay Area-only perks. I’m so excited to get Bloomfield’s goodies right here in Oakland, they are an amazing organic family farm in Petaluma area. Without Farmigo you more likely have to trek up there to buy produce, and they wouldn’t be as financially sustainable either, not knowing who will show up to their stand or what they’ll buy. Smart distribution models like this are the future of a solid localized food network, where farmers can afford to run their farms, environmental and watershed considerations are status quo, and people can access whole food that doesn’t use up their whole paycheck.
There were more tomato varieties than I could ever imagine at this year’s National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa. It was very inspiring – types that can survive on the foggy coast, big huge hot weather types, and a slew of native tomatoes with funky shapes and colors and a definitively fruity taste. Some even had lantern-like capes on, like the golden ground cherries.
I’m honored to have eaten so many delicious tomatoes this year, and I’ll bask in the next several weeks as the plants send out their last gust of life into the seedy fruit. I’ve got hand towels laying out all over the living room drying my saved seeds, in the hopes that next year another crop will flourish.
jump for joy! my san marzanos!saw more tomatoes at the Heirloom Expo than I could even imagineamazing lamb meatballs at Cupola'sluscious tomato sauce is the key to the tasty pizzas at Cupola'smmm Cupola's antipasti du jourCupola's pizza oven, a real beautycan't believe I grew this! a tasty ananas noira peak at my san marzanos growingthe first thing I did with my own tomato sauce? homey lasagnaready to skin before canning