TOMATO TALK: A Q&A WITH TOMATO ‘JEDI MASTER’ NADINE SCHAEFFER

NestOfJewelsIn spring, when tomato-maniacs are deciding which varieties to squish into their home gardens, there are more tomato events—talks, workshops, sales, etc.—than you can shake a stick at. Less so in fall. Yet now, when the harvest is at its peak, we have the opportunity to actually taste what we might want to grow next year. After all—if not now, when?

With this in mind, Slow Food Santa Cruz and The Curated Feast have teamed up with Birdsong Orchards, a certified organic farm near Watsonville, to host a tomato tasting party in which Birdsong farmer Nadine Schaeffer will showcase 40 of her favorite varieties out of the 75 she is growing this year. (See below for the mind-boggling complete list.) They have novel and intriguing names like Ananas Noir, Ghost Cherry and Kellogg’s Breakfast. Tomatoes of every size, shape and color will be featured, ranging from red to orange and green to purple-black, both striped and solid. There will be paste, cherry, oxheart, slicers, and every other type. To date, Schaeffer has herself grown 128 varieties.

Schaeffer’s friends in the slow-food community have jokingly called her the “Jedi Master” of tomatoes. She sells her “love apples” to restaurants like Soif, La Posta and the LionFish SupperClub. They are also served at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, which is known for its fresh, beautiful food and world-class chefs.

PosterThe tasting will be held from noon to 3pm on Saturday, September 19th at Harvey West Park’s Oak Picnic Area in Santa Cruz. A $15 ticket includes the tasting plus snacks like chocolate-covered dried tomatoes and free seed giveaways of unique varieties. There will also be a brief talk on the history of tomatoes and how to grow them, and tomatoes will be available for purchase.

“Stories, flavors, and beauty—what else do you need?” said Liz Birnbaum of The Curated Feast about why she organized the event. “This was a good fit for The Curated Feast because the tomato has a deep colonial/imperial history that makes it fascinating.

“The tomato is from the Andes,” she went on, “and it was brought to Europe through Cortez and other conquistadors and explorers. But when it arrived to mainland Europe people were initially terrified. They would run from it in fear—primarily because it is a nightshade, after all, and nightshades are so-called because they bring eternal sleep. But that is just one story, and there are so many more.”

For her part, Schaeffer has been following the Slow Food movement out of Italy for years, and she is thrilled that our region has its own branch that can sponsor events. Prior to farming, she and her partner Jason Wehmhoener worked in technology for many years. Upon deciding they wanted to do something that was more meaningful to them, they started Birdsong Orchards. Besides tomatoes, Schaeffer grows multiple varieties of walnuts, apricots, persimmons, plums, peaches, apples, pears, and pomegranates, with 300 new trees in the ground.

We picked the farmer’s brain about all things tomatoes.

Edible Monterey Bay: The Santa Cruz area is not known for growing large heirloom TomatoTastingtomatoes because it’s cool here. Many people stick with cherry tomatoes. Is your farm especially well-sited—e.g., hot and sunny?

Nadine Schaeffer: Tomatoes thrive in conditions between 60-80 degrees. So, as long as there is enough sun, this region is actually a good tomato-growing climate. Since our farm is tucked back against the Santa Cruz Mountains, and eight miles inland from the coast and the worst of the fog layer, it’s proving to be an ideal place to grow tomatoes. 

Why do you grow so many varieties? It’s kind of extreme—encyclopedic, even.

I didn’t like tomatoes as a kid, and then realized later on that I had just never had a good tomato. I am also fascinated with the genetic diversity of tomatoes—there are over 5,000 varieties, and I have barely scratched the surface. The flavor diversity is also so extreme. I have even got out the Brix scale to prove that some tomatoes have four- to 10-times the sugar values of others.

You must do a lot of research to come up with so many off-the-beaten-path varieties.

A fondness for research and spreadsheets carried over from my years in the tech world. But there are also some fabulous resources for finding seeds. Here are two of my favorite tomato seed sources: Tatiana’s Tomato Base, which has 717 varieties and is very well organized, and TomatoFest, which has 600 varieties, great collections, instructional videos and growing information.

What are your top 10 favorite tomatoes, and why?

I am going to be lazy and point you to a blog post I wrote about my favorites from last year called Fabulous and Fantastic Heirloom Tomatoes to Plant Again. (Author’s note: this list is worth reading!) Over the next few years, I would like to figure out the very best tomatoes for our terroir. I have a dream goal of developing my own heirloom varieties.

With so many varieties, how can I know what to try?

If you are looking for a variety of flavors, pick the oddest shaped and most wildly colored heirlooms you can find.

What’s the trick for picking a perfect tomato?

A tomato should not be rock hard nor mushy. It should give just a little. At the market, pick up tomatoes and reject any with soft spots and especially black spots on the bottom.

What’s the best way to store your tomatoes?

The endless debate of the fridge versus the counter! I personally keep mine on the counter out of direct sunlight. They are more flavorful to me at room temperature.


RECIPE: TOMATO SAVORY PIE

By Nadine Schaeffer

Ingredients:

1 refrigerated pie crust

1 cup ricotta cheese

3 ounces gorgonzola or blue cheese

1/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 pound assorted heirloom cherry tomatoes, sliced

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves

 salt and pepper 

Instructions 

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. 
  2. Press the crust into a 9-inch tart pan. Use a fork to poke several holes in the bottom of the crust. Line the crust with parchment paper and then fill with pie weights or dried beans so it doesn’t rise. Bake 16 to 18 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove the pie weights and parchment paper, and then transfer the crust to a rack to cool completely.
  3. Meanwhile, in medium bowl, mix the ricotta, blue cheese and lemon zest until well combined.
  4. Spread the ricotta mixture evenly on the bottom of the cooled tart crust. Then arrange tomatoes over ricotta in concentric circles; sprinkle with shredded basil, salt and pepper. Slice and serve immediately. 

 

FARMER SCHAEFFER’S 2015 TOMATO PLANT LIST 

 

  1. Marianna Peace Cherry
  2. Bloody Butcher
  3. Jersey Devil
  4. Ananas Noir
  5. Paul Robeson
  6. Michael Pollan
  7. Crimean Rose
  8. Indigo Rose
  9. Oaxacan Jewel
  10. Julia Child
  11. Costoluto Fiorentino
  12. Kellogg’s Breakfast
  13. Yellow Lemon
  14. Cuor di Bue
  15. Purple Calabash
  16. White Oxheart
  17. Green Doctors
  18. Green Zebra
  19. Sunset Red Horizon
  20. Blonde Boar
  21. Argentina
  22. Japanese Black
  23. Ghost Cherry
  24. Black Cherry
  25. Club Yellow Cherry
  26. White Cherry
  27. Black Plum
  28. Hawaiian Pineapple
  29. Elbe
  30. Schwartze Sarah
  31. Hawaiian Pineapple
  32. Orange Russian
  33. Omar’s Lebanese
  34. Nyagous
  35. Blush
  36. Spears Tennessee Green
  37. Speckled Peach
  38. Mark Twain
  39. Gary Ibsen’s Gold
  40. Thessaloniki
  41. Black Icicle
  42. Brad’s Black Heart
  43. Pink Zapotece Ribbed
  44. Pink Russian 117
  45. Pine Beauty
  46. Purple Bumble Bee
  47. Pride of Flanders
  48. Kiwi
  49. Juane Flamme
  50. Aunt Ruby’s German Green
  51. Black Krim
  52. Pink Accordion
  53. Japanese Oxhart
  54. Tim’s Black Ruffles
  55. Druzba
  56. San Marzano
  57. Gold Medal
  58. Amanda Orange
  59. Amish Paste
  60. Super White
  61. Indian Stripe
  62. Hazel Gold
  63. White Wonder
  64. Orange Strawberry
  65. Rose Berne
  66. Moskovich
  67. Grandfather Ashlook
  68. Nebraska Wedding
  69. Ukranian Heart
  70. Grandma’s Viney
  71. Pork Chop
  72. Emerald Evergreen
  73. Mr Brown
  74. Candy’s Old Yellow
  75. Love Apple Farm

 

 

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Jillian Laurel Steinberger has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Area News Group papers, BUST, Bitch, Edible East Bay, and other publications. As a landscape designer, she loves creating inspiring spaces with a focus on native plants and edibles for year-round color, food, and pollination. jillian@garden-artisan.com

 

 

 

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