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Savoring the heirlooms you can eat

What's old is new again as we take a bite out of summertime favorite.


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Ruby red, round, with robust flavor: What's not to love about tomatoes? They have become one of our favorite foods. On average, each of us eats about 19 pounds of them a year. But the next big craze in tomatoes actually takes a step back in time, with heirloom-variety tomatoes quickly becoming the darlings of consumers, farmers and chefs. The popularity of heirlooms has increased enormously over the last decade as people have gotten accustomed to these oddly shaped, colored and named tomatoes. And nowhere is the love for these unusual items more evident than at the annual TomatoFest in Carmel.

Called the granddaddy of tomato events, the food festival was started by Gary Ibsen, or as he's known around these parts, "The Tomato Man." Spurred on by a neighbor 30 years ago to give heirlooms a try, he now grows more than 500 varieties of them, with each one front and center at the fest.

"It actually got started in my backyard about two miles down the road. That first year I had about 10 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. And then I decided the harvest was so good of those 10 varieties that I had to invite some chef friends over to taste them and the rest is history," Ibsen said.

But the splendor of heirloom tomatoes isn't just relegated to their taste. They have a fascinating and rich history that springs from family farms around the world. In fact, many heirloom tomatoes can be traced back to Eastern Europe--places like Poland and Russia--and since the fall of the Berlin Wall have managed finally to find their way into the United States. Now, tomatoes like Speckled Siberian, Russian lime and Aunt Ruby's German Green are having their good names restored and their status among great chefs is being rekindled with each new dish.

Heirloom tomatoes are so popular, they even fill entire menus at some restaurants. At the Oliveto Restaurant in Oakland, they've created a three-day event called "Tomato Dinners." The idea was originally started both to enjoy the new bounty of tomatoes hitting stores and to support local farmers who were trying to find niche markets for their burgeoning products. A dazzling array of artistry and creativity are on display here; everything from soups to spaghetti to sorbets were made, thanks to one ingredient and one bunch of hard-working people.

"There would be no tomato dinners without our local farmers. We have great relationships with them. And throughout the tomato growing season, I'm in constant contact with them, in anticipation of this meal," Paul Canales, executive chef at Oliveto, said.

Because of that support, more farmers than ever are jumping into the market and today more than 8 million pounds of heirloom tomatoes are being harvested every year in California. And some of the best are coming out of Swank Farms in Hollister, where there is no time like the present to enjoy the produce paradise known as tomato season. The 60-acre ranch has seen many transformations over its 78-year history but today, Dick and Bonnie Swank continue the family legacy of farming by growing a variety of produce that includes some pretty tasty, albeit different-looking, tomatoes.

So whether it's the vivid flavor, unusual names or the storied history that entices you, go ahead and enjoy these tasty tomatoes today. Who knows, they might just become a favorite family heirloom at your dinner table tonight.

For more information about the TomatoFest, visit www.tomatofest.com.

For more information about Oliveto, visit www.oliveto.com.

For more information about Swank Farms, visit www.swankfarms.com.


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