Tomato tasters opt for vintage fruits

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With descriptions such as robust, fruity and piquant repeatedly tossed out, the event at the Carroll County Farm Museum yesterday sounded like a fancy wine tasting.

But museum visitors weren't talking about fermented grape juice. They were evaluating another fruit: tomatoes.

The Moskovich -- bright red and large as a man's fist -- had "great color but a bland taste," said Steve Allgeier, a consultant with the Maryland Cooperative Extension. He said he favored the bolder-tasting Yellows, adding, "You really know you are eating a tomato."

Allgeier was one of about a dozen to participate in the Westminster museum's Great Tomato Taste Off. The curious were given the chance to sample 58 varieties of tomatoes from the Farm Museum's garden of "heirloom" plants.

Tasters meandered among cloth-covered tables filled with every size, shape, color and flavor of tomato. Juices oozed as they sliced into varieties such as Wonderlight, Garden Peach and Hillbilly.

"I wish I had brought a salt shaker," said Kathy Beaver of Westminster. "I love tomatoes, and I only got one to grow this summer."

Deborah Cohen, a master gardener and museum volunteer, sampled a Riesentraube that she decided "tasted like a sweet German wine." The tomato's seeds are of mid-19th century Pennsylvania Dutch origin.

"Is there anything here to clear the palate in between tastes?" Cohen asked.

Possibly tomato sorbet, said museum historian and event organizer Pat Brodowski, but she said she has yet to try that recipe. She offered ice water in response to the facetious question.

Tomato names -- some American, others with foreign roots -- and their stories fascinated the tasters as much as the samples they continually skewered with toothpicks.

"Tommy Toes, I bet that came from wordplaying with the name tomato," said Allgeier. "You got to love that name. Or what could be more heirloom than Box Car Willie?"

Box Car Willie is named after a country-western singer. Tommy Toes might have a silly sound, but the cherry tomatoes, which grow well on a trellis, recently won an Australian taste test.

Mortgage Lifter dates to the 1930s, when a gardener crossbred four varieties. The story says seed sales helped him pay off his mortgage. Lucky Leprechauns may have arrived as seeds with Irish immigrants in the early 20th century.

"Different families saved seeds from their favorite tomatoes for generations," said Brodowski, who has planted and tended the heirloom garden at the Westminster museum for the past few years.

Heirloom gardens feature old varieties of fruits and vegetables grown for flavor rather than disease resistance or the bright colors and uniform shapes of produce sold in grocery stores.

The heirloom tomatoes came in rich red, golden orange, pale yellow and a vibrant green. A few were multihued, like the Green Zebra and Mr. Stripey, also known as Tigerella.

The yellow and red stripes "reminded me of ketchup with vinegar," Allgeier said. He went on to taste Wonderlight, a lemon-shaped yellow tomato.

"It looks like a lemon, but it doesn't taste like one," he said. "It's actually sweet. It is amazing how many different taste there are."

Debbie Leister, a museum volunteer, gravitated to the unusually shaped varieties and those with odd names and histories. After sampling the pale-orange and fuzzy Garden Peach, the Westminster resident said, "This tastes almost like you are eating fruit."

Brodowski reminded the group that tomatoes are fruits, once known as "love apples." Her personal favorite is Aunt Ruby's German Green.

"It tastes like apple pie, sweet and spicy with a texture like crust," she said.

Tessie Weant, at 3 the youngest in the group, eagerly ate the samples. She seemed to like them all. When asked to name her favorite tomato, the little girl replied: "Red."

Brodowski sliced a Pruden's Purple, a variety that often grows to a pound. The deep-red slices did not quite live up to the colorful name. Many of the large red varieties were tempting but a little disappointing.

Not so with Mule Team, said Stew Wiles, taking a break from his consulting business to taste tomatoes.

"Now there is a tomato you can put a hamburger on," he said.

Hungarian Heart was not tangy enough for Kay Sedlak, who has a vegetable garden.

"I like to be hit with tomato flavor," said Sedlak, who brought heirloom lettuce to the tasting. "I am sticking with the Romas."

The tasters shared recipes, traded garden tips and commented on the new tastes they were discovering. Wiles said he would add a few things to future tastings. "Mayo, fresh baked bread and a ground pepper medley would be great," he said.

Brodowski invited everyone to pick from the garden. Beaver left with an armful of tomatoes. Allgeier declined.

"I am tomatoed out today," he said after nearly 90 minutes of tasting. "My tongue is ringing."

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