This summer I was intrigued by the mention of the “superbowl of heirloom tomatoes, Tomatofest” in a newsletter put out by Cynthia of the Heirloom-tomato paradise Love Apple Farms. Since the founder Gary Ibsen was retiring this year, it seemed like my last opportunity to attend. Before I knew it I’d ordered two tickets and informed the DH of our future engagement.
How could I resist, with a promised “350 tomato varieties from around the world, delicious tomato dishes created by 60 of America’s best chefs, a tasting of 200 of California’s finest wines, a “Salsa Showcase” tasting, and an International Olive Oil Tasting” (Tomatofest)
I had the strong feeling that some of those attractions would contain gluten, but I thought it would be worth it even if all I could have were the promised heirloom tomatoes. When we finally arrived that Sunday at the Quail Lodge in Carmel, Ca, I was impressed with how large the event was. I had imagined an indoor conference room and instead found myself facing rolling green lawns and large tents everywhere. We waited in line while Barbershop type singers strolled up and down the waiting line, but unfortunately we couldn’t hear a single note from our vantage point.
DH and I sat down in the grass and prepared for a long wait, but we were pleasantly surprised when the organizers opened the gates for regular admission a bit early and we got to go in, clutching our little goodie bag containing the event program.
We were torn whether to start with the heirloom tomato tastings or the gourmet restaurant stations. Ultimately we couldn’t resist the gorgeous pyramids of fresh, perfect tomatoes and bite sized cubes in colors ranging from brown, red, orange, yellow, and green. Some had stripes, others were shaped like perfect little round berries, or like miniature pumpkins, and still others were oxheart shaped. Either way, as I tasted each one I marveled at the difference not just in appearance but in flavor. I loved Aunt Ginny’s Purple, the unbelievably sweet Watermelon Beefsteak, and the tasty Evergreen. It was also fun to come across old favorites that I’d previously bought from Cynthia’s farm like Russian 117 or Tigerella. Best of all, you could purchase seeds for most of the 350 heirloom tomato varieties.
Besides the great fun of snacking on tomatoes that tasted like cereal, pineapple, chocolate, or carrots, there were many booths by companies like Trader Joe’s, Mozzarella Fresca Amy’s Kitchen, and Just Tomatoes. (And no, there wasn’t much in the way of Amy’s GF goods, alas.) The salsa booth was fun, although it was all very mainstream and pre-packaged. I was happy that they served the salsa with clearly labeled corn chips, sans gluten. The most fun part of the event, though, were the booths by elite California chefs. Each restaurant had sent one of their chefs (and assistants) and each one served an original dish inspired by beautiful heirloom tomatoes. All of the chefs were right behind the booth, so I was able to ask about wheat or gluten-ingredients from each one and feel completely confident in tasting their dishes. Many dishes very obviously were not gluten-free, with pizza crusts, bread bases, or crackers, and still others were not veg/pesc friendly. However, there were a surprising number of dishes perfect for a gluten-free pescatarian, such as the Heirloom tomato shrimp and scallops cevishe, seafood cocktails, risotto, and seared fish. It was more difficult to find true vegetarian dishes, but there were some lovely gazpacho, creative dishes like heirloom tomatoes with crystallized wasabi and ginger-shiso syrup (a real flavor explosion in your mouth!) and my favorite, Millennium Restaurant’s dish of arepas with smoked gold tomato coulis, a corn ragu and green grape tomato salsa.
All together it was a lovely, gourmet experience. I can safely say I’ve never had so many different exotic variations on the tomato at one time (or any other food!) in my life and I enjoyed every surprising bite of it. There was also a BBQ tent with more comfort-food style offerings such as baked beans, colorful corn on the cob and cole slaw. I was excited by the corn until I tasted it and found it tasted like nothing so much as lighter fluid. Yum yum. Needless to say, I wasn’t the only person that left it on their plate, barely touched. I also was saddened by the fact that the only way to taste the olive oil was with big crusty slices of wheat bread. Besides for these two minor disappointments, DH and I had an absolutely delicious time. We thoroughly enjoyed sipping on local wines in between nibbling on gourmet dishes and sampling pomegranate dessert vinegar. It was one of the best “dates” we’d been on in a long time and the best part was that everything was so easy, and included in one ticket price. (The only thing not included in the price were take home gifts, tomato seeds, and (weirdly) coffee. Otherwise, all food and beverages (Even fiji water!) was free.) There were also less people than at the Gilroy garlic festival, making it a much more relaxing experience. On our way out we passed by buckets of assorted gorgeous heirloom tomatoes for a mere $12 and couldn’t resist taking one home. We savored them for the next week, and I’d say that last splurge was worth every penny! Gary Ibsen, the founder and director of TomatoFest, retired this year so there may not be another tomatofest, but if anyone picks up the tradition or you have the opportunity to go in your area, I would definitely recommend it. You too should have the opportunity to establish your stance on chocolate brown tomatoes, icy glacier tomatoes, and traditional German varieties… But I warn you, after an experience like this, you won’t be quite as satisfied by off-season supermarket varieties!