It’s been a rough season for tomatoes, but you wouldn’t know it by the feast laid out Saturday morning at the downtown Durham Farmers’ Market.
Some varieties were well-known: Pink Girl, Cherokee Purple, Roma, Lemon Boy. Others – Arkansas Traveler, Tomimaru Mucho and Indigo Rose – made shoppers pause and reach for another sample.
At 8:30 a.m., Chef Shane Ingram told his crew to put as many different varieties on the table as fast as possible. They started with 40 large lunch bags and 30 varieties, said Ingram, owner of Durham’s Four Square Restaurant. A case of red, beefy tomatoes sat nearby, where Ingram set up a grilled tomato and cheese station in honor of the eighth annual Tomato Tasting Party.
A few early-morning tasters stopped by as the first pats of butter crackled in the pan. Ingram cut thick, crusty slices from pastry chef Steve Kennedy’s homemade loaves of bread. The milky smell of melting cheese mingled with the sharp acidity of the tomatoes to draw a larger crowd. Soon, the line at the tasting table was four rows thick.
The sandwiches are “kind of like dessert,” Ingram said. His favorite is the more acidic Green Zebra tomato – good for sandwiches and salads, he said. Four Square currently has a bouillabaisse on its menu made with green zebra tomatoes and tomatillos, he said.
“We’re rocking real big sandwiches today with tomatoes for your dining pleasure,” he said, handing sandwiches on small paper plates to the crowd.
Ann Wilbur stopped by with her husband, Mark. The couple said they are in Durham for the summer to visit their daughter, but they live the rest of the year in Dallas. Texas does not have the same “charming” farmers markets that Durham residents enjoy, Ann Wilbur said. The couple said they enjoyed the Paul Robeson Beefsteak tomatoes, which have a hearty but mild flavor.
“It’s hard to pick one when there are so many good choices,” she said.
The Tomato Tasting Party is a huge event for the market, manager Erin Kauffman said. Saturday’s winning variety will be announced in the market newsletter next week, she said.
In the end, it was a good showing, even though the farmers were hit hard this year by cool, wet weather, she said.
“It made it a really good season for blight,” a fungus), she said. “Also, because of all the gray weather, it affects how they ripen.”
The flavor of a tomato doesn’t just come from the fruit, she and others said. It’s also influenced by the soil, the weather and the flavor that develops in the plant’s leaves.
A short, soggy season
Several growers said this year’s tomato season, which usually stretches into October and sometimes November, will end for them in late August. Others, who had less rain or grow their crops in greenhouses, expect the tomatoes to last a little longer.
Zulane Cunningham with Sunny Slopes Farm in Asheboro said cool temperatures have a bigger impact on greenhouse-grown tomatoes. They use heaters to help ripen the fruit, she said.
Although herbicides can fight blight and other diseases, organic farmers and home gardeners don’t have many options when plants are flooded with rain, said Judy Lessler, owner of Harland’s Creek Farm in Chatham County. Diseases live in the dirt, and the rain splashes that dirt onto the plant’s stems and leaves, or rain pools around the plant’s roots, setting the stage for blight. Tomatoes are a Mediterranean fruit that like it hot and dry, she said.
Libby Outlaw, co-owner of Maple Spring Gardens in northern Orange County, said they use plastic sheeting on the ground to protect the roots from too much water. They also can sprinkle the tomato plants with copper sulfite, an herbicide that meets organic standards, but it washes off in the rain, she said. A June hailstorm also damaged some of their crops, she said.
“We’re really doing better than we thought we would, so in the end, I’m not going to really complain about it,” Outlaw said.
Raising great tomatoes is all about timing, and a little luck, said George O’Neal, co-owner of Lil’ Farm in Timberlake.
He and three others work the nearly 4-acre farm, usually putting out tomato plants every six weeks so they can harvest a steady supply through the growing season. The ground was too muddy to put out the third planting this year, so they will be done with tomatoes soon, he said.
To their surprise, it turned out to be a great tomato season, O’Neal said.
“After throwing away several thousand pounds, they bounced back. It was to the point where we were almost in tears, because you depend on the money, and the next thing you know the sun comes out,” he said. “The drought starts at the end of the rain every time.”