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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Timing matters for tomatoes

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Consider the tomato. Is there a vegetable (well, OK, fruit) more common in the American diet or more likely to be of poor quality? At Peter Merriman's 7th annual Tomato Tasting event last Saturday in Waimea, we judges got a chance to refresh our memories about "real tomatoes," tasting more than 30 varieties from O'ahu and Big Island farms.

Former Advertiser food editor Joan Namkoong, a longtime judge, got nods of agreement when she commented that the tomatoes seemed more watery and generally less flavorful. Farmers explained that weather has been bad and it's late in the season (the tasting was postponed this year to coincide with the Big Island Festival).

What was impressive was the increasing number of varieties and the ever-widening distribution. We tasted tomatoes that ranged in color from russet to daffodil, in shape from grape to gourd and in taste from grapefruity to astringent.

As we tasted, we discussed what makes a good tomato and how to identify one. Merriman said pressure from fast-food companies forced large tomato producers to move from taste-rich varieties with ridges and shoulders to smooth-skinned, round fruit. With those hill and valleys, you lose perhaps 20 percent of the tomato, so the hamburger chains wanted them gone — but with them went taste. So Merriman suggested looking for "gnarly," odd-shaped tomatoes as a sign of a grower who's thinking more of flavor than appearance.

But Kate Sekules, Food and Wine magazine's travel editor, wasn't convinced: "I don't care how a tomato looks when it's whole. It's all in the taste."

Judge Sam Choy asked the growers seated in the gallery whether they had noticed any difference between tomatoes depending on their location on the vine. Erin Lee of Lokelani Farms said there is more flavor in tomatoes grown farther down the vine, closer to the soil. Choy espoused a theory that tomatoes ought always to be cut crossways through the fruit, rather than from stem-end to bottom or in quarters — "to get the flavor all the way through."

After three flights of tomatoes had been tasted, Merriman's chef Sandy Barr largely dispensed with tomatoes in an extraordinary homey lunch she prepared for judges and farmers. Grower Pam Hirabara made a point of noting that — with the exception of staples — everything served over the five or six courses (I lost track in my delight) was grown or harvested on or around the Big Island, an accomplishment you simply couldn't have pulled off a dozen or so years ago when Merriman and others first began relationships with farmers, fishermen, cheesemakers and others.

And the winners: large farm/specialty, "yellow cherry" from Jeanne Vana's North Shore Farms, Waialua, O'ahu; small farm/specialty, "grape tomato" from Tane and Maureen Data's Adaptations specialty produce business in Captain Cook; variety/colored, "green lady" from North Shore Farms, Waialua; large farm/slicing tomatoes, Kawamata Farms, Waimea; small farm/slicing tomatoes, Erin Lee and Susan Welch's Lokelani Farms (Lee credits grower Calvin Escarpaso).

Lokelani and Adaptations are sparse on O'ahu but you can find Kawamata Farms tomatoes at Safeway and North Shore Farms tomatoes at Saturday Farmers' Markets in Mililani, Sunset Beach and Waialua.