Tomatoes times ten

Ten years of Tomatopalooza – wow. And it all started in a geeky guy’s driveway. The difference today is that Craig LeHoullier is now a full-time tomato-guy, after leaving his chemist job at Glaxo, His interest in collecting and promoting heirloom tomato varieties grew into a passion for preserving and perpetuating these unusual, flavorful tomatoes. He started collecting seeds and growing plants, which he sells at farmers markets.

Slow Food USA has recognized LeHoullier for rediscovering and preserving the Cherokee Purple, which the organization has named to its U.S. Ark of Taste. Cherokee Purple is one of the most popular and more widely available heirlooms, with rich, balanced flavor (not too acid, not too sweet) and meaty texture.

Tomatopalooza started as a way to popularize heirlooms among tomato-growing nuts. This year, as always, visitors were asked to vote on their favorites. I never do – because I’d take any of them home (although I do prefer a more acid-tasting tomato; love that tartness).

Black, green, yellow, white, crimson, even one with a green-and-red tie-dye look. Sweet, acid, bright, smoky flavors. Tiny ruby ‘maters the size of the tip of my little finger (Mexico Midget). Giant Cherokee Purples like softballs. More than 160 varieties in all were on the long tables beneath the welcome shade of trees on an Efland, N.C. farm last Saturday.

I tasted the same variety, called Carbon, provided by two different growers and they didn’t taste exactly the same, like wine produced in different terroirs. Actually, there are many similarities between great tomatoes and fine wine, and both stain your shirt if you’re clumsy.

By the way, despite what many people think, there is really no such thing as a low-acid tomato. All tomatoes have about the same acid content, and differences in flavor are caused by variations in the sugar-to-acid ratio. That means that sweeter-tasting tomatoes have more sugar, not less acid.

LeHoullier also offered samples of what he calls the “dwarf project”: His work with an Australian scientist to tame the heirloom plants, which can grow 8 to 10 feet tall, into four or five-foot home versions that might even work in containers.

To find out more about LeHoullier and his projects (he also hosts tomato dinners are area restaurants and is working on a book) visit here. And you can see more delectable photos here.