Last Saturday’s Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center turned out to be a hoot for ARThound and the weekend’s hottest gourmet ticket. The event’s 3,000 tickets were sold out in early September. The festival, now in its 14th year, was well worth the $65 donation, which went to the School Garden Network of Sonoma County, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable garden and nutrition-based learning programs for local students. Considering there was ample opportunity to gorge yourself on as much food as you could eat in 5.5 hours, 5 complementary samplings of Kendall-Jackson wines, and loads of great entertainment, there was a lot of value in that ticket too. True, this festival is all about heirloom tomatoes but it’s also a very well-run gourmet event, and by that I mean fairly high-end gourmet. Fifty-five of the area’s top restaurants sampled incredible delicacies using heirloom tomatoes that came right from Kendall-Jackson’s own gardens, with attendees voting on whose dish was most delectable. The event also included a number of timed cook-offs which pitted top chefs against each other, winners determined by audience applause.
Tasting Tent: 170 varieties
Central to the annual event is a large tent with long tables holding dozens of plates of sliced heirloom
tomatoes, organized by color/type which attendees are encouraged to taste with toothpicks and then rank. This year, there were over 170 varieties that had been freshly picked from Kendall-Jackson’s organic culinary gardens, which were also available to tour. I had come to try “Zogola,” a huge, deep-red beautifully fluted on the shoulders beefsteak. Its taste was reportedly full-bodied, tangy, rich and sweet. And like the fascinating and legendary first King of Albania, who I imagine is this tomato’s namesake, Zogola is noble and reliable. While listed on the JK tasting sheet, there was no Zogola to be found, so I made my way down the tables and landed upon the luscious “Glory of Moldova,” which seduced me immediately with its rich carrot-orange color and sweet mild taste and that name, harkening to the Republic of Moldova’s independent status. I had visited this remote rural area when it was still part of Romania. A prolific late-season heirloom that yields 2 to 3 inch fruits, I was told that Glory of Moldova makes fantastic juice.
To be honest, I have to reveal my personal biases. As a journalist who spent years in the former Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans, I am easily moved by any Siberian, Ukrainian, Black Sea or pre and post-glasnost names. And with good reason, many of the exotic purple, dusky brown, bluish brown and mahogany skinned tomatoes that Northern Californians are currently so enamored with, hail from this part of the world.
Originally, black-purple tomatoes were native to the Southern Ukraine during the early 19th century and were found on a small Crimean peninsula. They spread throughout the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and ultimately made their way here, where we marvel at their colors and bold complex taste. In tomato tastings all over, blacks are placing as high as reds or pinks. Actually, “black” became the new red among tomatoes a few years ago in the haute food world and now it seems like almost everyone has tried them. They are gorgeous sliced and served plain on a plate, sprucing up a salad or sandwich and they are robust enough for sauces. This year’s festival offered—Black, Black from Tula, Black Krim, Black Plum, Paul Robeson, Purple Prince, Cherokee Purple.
An heirloom that I grow in my own garden, the Japanese Black Trifele, produces pear-shaped globes with a rich flavor that can’t be beat.
Growing Contest–Looks, Flavor, Weight
Growers from far and wide entered the home-grown tomato-growing competition where judging was based on looks, flavor, and weight. The “Golden Trowel Award” for best of show went to Mia Brown of Lodi for her “Green Doctor” tomatoes which won the Cherry and Currant Division. Brown seems to have had the right tomato karma this year—she got 6 of 18 awards given, more than anyone else. The Largest/Heaviest tomato was a 2lb 4.5 oz “Pineapple Stripe” tomato grown by Brad Agerter of Healdsburg. Other categories included “White and Green,” “Yellow and Orange,” “Pink and Red,” “Purple, Brown and Black” and “Paste.”
The chance to try amazing tomato gourmet delicacies created right before your eyes by some of the area’s top chefs is what makes this festival so popular. All of them use freshly picked heirloom tomatoes supplied by Kendall-Jackson and, in many cases, KJ olive oil and wine too. Here are a few that caught my fancy—
I started off with dessert, no breakfast. Chef Rene Jakushak of Nectar Restaurant (Hilton Sonoma Wine Country) did tomato waffles (pureed Brandywine tomatoes are a staple in the pink batter), with heirloom tomato whipped butter, a sweet tomato syrup, topped with ground pistachios. The amazing thing about this combo was its sweet taste, hinting at its prime ingredient.
Cheesemaker Sheena Davis of Epicurean Connection, Sonoma, was sampling scoops of her award-winning Delice de la Vallee cheese, a sweet and creamy blend of fresh triple cream cow and fresh goat milk, over heirlooms with fresh homemade balsamic and Kendall-Jackson Estate extra virgin olive oils. By 1:30 pm she and her beaming assistant Eva (manning the scoop) had served about 4,500 samples. “We’re gonna keep going,” she said. “People can’t get enough of this.” Like many of the vendors I met, Davis’ acclaim in the highly competitive cheese world is hard-won and something she is very proud of. She had a copy of cheese aficionado and author Juliet Harbut’s The World Cheese Book proudly displayed at her booth and told me that she had authored the American cheese section, quite an honor. As it turns out, Davis’ section of this gorgeous cheese book is packed with wisdom about cheese making and pairings.
Just down the way, Carrie Brown, proprietress of Healdsburg’s charming Jimtown Store, was sampling more of Davis’ cheese with her own “Spicy Pepper Jam” and another delicacy–Spanish “romesco” sauce of roasted red pepper, toasted almonds, smoked paprika, garlic, and olive oil, topped with cucumber-fennel slaw on a hand-cut corn tortilla chip. Brown proudly informed me that her spicy pepper jam is soon going to be sold in tubs in the refrigerated cheese sections of stores like Whole Foods so that it can be paired with the fresh cheeses it so wonderfully complements. Coups like this are to be celebrated. In my enthusiasm, I forgot to inquire about the tomato component of her offerings….aheemmm.
Part of the fun is getting to vote by casting your chip into the bowl of your favorite vendor. This year’s people choice Food Vendor Award went to Tolay, Sonoma County Cuisine (at the Sonoma Sheraton Petaluma) and executive chef Danny Mai for their “Sope de Tinga,” chicken sopes with tomato sauce. Mai is well-known for appropriating ideas from several different regions and then recreating them in his own assimilated signature dishes. He told me that his inspiration for cooking comes from chef Rick Bayless who has changed the image of Mexican food in America and yet remains a very humble and authentic person. Mai’s sopes were essentially very thick homemade tostadas piled high with a perfect mix of simple ingredients—shredded chicken, cubed
heirlooms and chiplote in a salsa called tingua, cilantro, fresh cream, sour cream and feta cheese. At 4-inches in diameter (among the most generous servings offered), these chunky heavenly Cal-Mex treats, with their rainbow of bright colors, had everyone buzzing. I had two. Hats off to Tolay!
Adam Mali, executive chef, Nick’s Cove in Point Reyes, offered up thousands of oysters simply topped with mild heirloom tomato varieties. Sean Thomas, aka The Zinful Chef, offered another winning seafood-tomato combo– yellow heirloom tomato lobster bisque that looked mild but actually delivered a robust red tomato taste. Thomas was one of these chefs who was really chatting it up with people, and was as interested in their opinions as he was in telling them about his innovative catering.
I topped off my afternoon of tasting with a long wait in line for Anthony Bonviso’s Watermelon Tomato Mint gelato at Fiorello’s Italian Ice Cream stand. Fiorello’s is a San Rafael institution and Anthony told me he is currently refining his popular basic wine sorbet into several spin-offs.
Tomato guru Amy Goldman, from New York gave a fascinating, informative and humorous lecture on
heirlooms to a standing room only audience. As chairman of the Seed Savers Exchange (the largest organization of rare seed devotes in the world) she also had a lot to say about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, the ultimate safety deposit box for biodiversity and global food supply preservation, storing duplicate collections of seeds on behalf of gene banks from around the world. (ARThound will be devoting a special article to Goldman and her work later.)
While the heirloom varieties that Seed Savers Exchange has contributed—for example, “Tomato German Pink”– make-up only a small portion of the total “deposits” at Svalbard, she mentioned that these are from seeds conserved
by its members who are largely home gardeners. Goldman encouraged people to snatch and save the seeds of those heirloom tomatoes that catch their fancy. For those interested in germinating and starting their own heirlooms, her book The Heirloom Tomato, has everything a novice needs to know on the topic.
After Goldman’s lecture, I ran into gardener Laura Taylor of Woodland Hills, who gave me a copy of her tomato calendar, a gorgeous month-by-month guide to growing tomatoes that begins in March and runs through February. Taylor represents the pioneering attitude that, along with the climate, has established Northern California as a Mecca for gardeners. While yet to start her own heirloom tomatoes from seeds, she has an unbridled passion for tasty tomatoes and a knack for gardening that she has turned into a business. She has branded herself “Laura Taylor at Home in the Garden,” teaches tomato growing and cooking classes, blogs about tomatoes, and has numerous media appearances. She came to this year’s KJ festival with a dream and mission—to be a featured tomato author/lecturer in the future.
TICKETS– The festival is a perennial sell-out. Tickets, $65, are pre-sold only (3,000 are available) and are available online at www.kj.com, or the Kendall Wine Center itself or the Healdsburg Tasting Room. Inquire about May, 2011.