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Vine-ripened organic tomatoes a big hit at farmers’ market

By Daniela Mohor Daily Planet staff
Monday August 06, 2001

“There’s only two things that money can’t buy,” Texas songwriter Guy Clark sang in 1983. “That’s true love and home grown tomatoes.” 

But growing tomatoes is not an easy task. That’s what customers at Berkeley Farmers’ Market learned Saturday at the annual tomato tasting. 

From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the public could taste samples of the 16 varieties of tomatoes – of all colors and shapes – that the market’s farmers sell on a regular basis. This year the tasting also included a cooking demonstration and a talk on organic tomato-growing. 

“It’s for people to get a sense of the huge variety of (tomatoes),” said Kirk Lumpkin, the farmers’ market special events coordinator, as he explained what the purpose of the tasting was. “I’m sure that there are still a lot of people, because what you get in the supermarket tends to be so limited in choice, who don’t know there are hundreds, maybe thousands of kinds of tomatoes.” 

Supermarket tomatoes lack flavor for a very simple reason, explained Paul Underhill, an organic farmer from Terra Firma Farm in the Central Valley.  

They are bred for shipping and not for taste. They are still green when harvested and are treated with ethylene gas to ripen. They are also hybridized to have a thicker skin and a shape that withstands the wear and tear of industrial processing. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has three standards for grades of tomatoes for shipping: green, mature and vine ripe. 

“All those tomatoes before they get to the supermarket are gassed to turn red,” he said. “They never develop any sugar; they never develop any flavor.” 

But the tomatoes that customers could sample Saturday are grown in a different way. First of all, they are harvested when they are ripe. And unlike agrabusinesses’ tomatoes, which are grown on bush plants, organic farms grow tomatoes like a vine on trellises or support stakes. This agricultural method, Underhill said, prevents tomatoes from cracking on the ground when ripening or from getting moldy if the soil is moist. It also keeps the tomatoes in the shade of the plants, protecting them from direct sun. 

Producing tasty tomatoes, however, also requires a nutritive soil, including calcium,  

and the right quantity of water, Underhill said. 

“Tomatoes need a certain amount of water but they don’t like to get too much,” said Underhill. “If you over-water them, they can split. If they don’t have enough water they can’t get the calcium out of the ground and they tend to develop large brown spots.” 

Those who want to grow tomatoes in their garden, Underhill concluded, should plant cherry tomatoes, which don’t need very good soil, don’t easily get burned by the sun, and are more likely to resist the Bay Area’s level of humidity. 

Earlier in the morning, Laurel K. Miller from the Sustainable Kitchen, a Berkeley cooking school, demonstrated how to prepare tomato-based soup and a fresh salad called “Panzanella.” 

Different varieties of tomatoes have different uses, she explained. 

“If you’re making a sauce, a Panzanella or a soup, it’s okay to have mushier or riper tomatoes,” she said. “But if you need something a little bit more firm like for a salad and you want the integrity of the shape of the tomato, you want to avoid that.” 

Another tip: meatier tomatoes make better sauces. Heirloom tomatoes, for instance, are particularly good for raw dishes, but too watery to be successfully cooked. 

“They have a lot of water content,” Miller said. “They tend to evaporate away and you really loose the complexities and the flavors.” 

The diversity of its colors and shapes, on the other hand, makes them perfect for salads. 

To those who have trouble choosing a variety, Miller recommends Early Girl, which is an all-purpose tomato. 



There will be another tomato tasting Tuesday, from 2 - 7 p.m. at the Farmers’ Market on Derby St. at MLK, Jr. Way.