What fun to attend a tomato tasting party! Vivian Reiss’s annual tomato tasting is held on her city rooftop garden in August. She grows 57 different kinds of heirlooms and sliced them up for visitors to taste the booty, and I was lucky to attend. Deciding on the best ones isn’t as easy as you’d think. These are heirloom tomatoes after all, the ones that actually have real taste – complicated taste. As plant breeder Joseph, from Greensparrow gardens says:
And they all taste different! Sweetness, tartness, savoryness, and all the 300+ flavor compounds that make a tomato shaken up into essentially endless variation. Tasting my way through… is a thrilling exploration: Some are okay, some vile, some—a rush of excitment here—are simply delicious.
300 flavour compounds! Not hard to believe when you actually start tasting them. I began to forget what a generic tomato tasted like after experiencing so many different flavours one after another.
There were a myriad colours, shapes and sizes, from the deep red and burgundy ‘Paul Robeson’ to orangey ‘Wapiscon Peach’, to the bright red micro-mini sized ‘Spoon’ tomato.
(If it was named because of its ability to fit into one, it would have to be an awfully small spoon. Perhaps it was named by Elves. ) I gave Vivian a ‘Spoon’ tomato to get her response.” Ooh! It gives me the shivers!” she said, “It’s such a surprise, that such a tiny tomato can burst and have so much flavour.”
White wine and bread was the accompaniment with a bit of sea salt and olive oil for contrast. Vivian encouraged the tomato tasting au naturel, however, to get the complete flavour of the tomato and I tend to agree. Just a tomato on the tongue, eyes closed, really tasting gives you the full impact. And many of the sun-kissed, room temperature tomatoes were swoonworthy. I arrived hungry, prepared for a feast.
Tasting tomatoes is a bit like trying on perfume, or going to a wine sampling. After a few tomatoes, you wonder if you can start to tell them apart. There was a vast range in flavours and textures, from sweet and juicy to mellow and fuzzy, like a peach.
When thumbing through a catalogue or at at nursery, with tomato names—as with perennials—I am always suckered by the names. I can’t resist a tomato called ‘Mr. Stripey’, but how does it taste? That’s why a tasting like this is so valuable.
|Dark, rich ‘Paul Robeson’|
My first tomato was ‘Paul Robeson’, a dark tomato in the black range, like ‘Black Krim’. So flavourful, with a wonderful texture. It spoiled me for the next couple of tomatoes I tasted. “I love Paul Robeson, it’s the baritone of tomatoes, with all those rich underbelly kind of tones to it,” Vivian said.
|‘Clint Eastwood’: “A dud, not a dude,” in the words of Vivian.|
We all agreed that ‘Clint Eastwood’ tomato was not Oscar worthy. It was mealy, watery and tasteless, “worse than a supermarket tomato”. Stick to directing, Clint.
|Beguiling ‘Julia Child’|
Everyone loved ‘Julia Child’. “Luscious!” exclaimed Vivian in her best Julia Child voice.
Another winner was ‘Isis Candy’. “Named after an Egyptian god,” said Vivian, tasting it. “Mmmm, entomb me with your flavour!” Did I say tomato tastings are fun? “Isis Candy is so sweet, it’s sweeter than raspberries. Would make a lovely raspberry and tomato salad.” ‘Wapiscon Peach’ was described as “like honey”.
Ariel, Vivian’s daughter, helping to host the tasting, had an amazing vocabulary for describing the varied tastes and flavours of the different tomatoes.
|Vivian Reiss (right) and her eloquent daughter Ariel|
She pointed out the Japanese word for a pleasant savoury taste, umami which some food experts would label as a fifth primary taste along with sweet, sour, salt and bitter. A good, ripe tomato offers a hearty dose of umami.
I left the tasting with a goody bag including one tomato I somehow hadn’t sampled. Two days later, I used it to make the best tomato sandwich I’ve ever had. A check in with Vivian confirmed that the pointy bottomed oxheart tomato was ‘Anna Russian’. It’s definitely going on my list for next year.
Thanks, Vivian and family for a fun, educational and mouth watering experience.