A Juicy Time For Tomato Lovers


There is a brief period every summer that connoisseurs of a particular jewel wait for with bated breath. As mid-August approaches, they watch the weather carefully, mindful of the season’s effect on their desired treasure and begin to plan for the bounty just days away. When it arrives, experts cherish the enjoyment of this prize, which sadly, is ephemeral even under the best of circumstances.

It’s tomato season. It’s Labor Day weekend. And the bounty has arrived.

While farm stands across the East End are now just beginning to boast an abundance of this colorful fruit, Quail Hill Farm offers an opportunity for tomato enthusiasts to delight in a sampling of some 50 varieties of organically grown tomatoes at its annual Great Tomato Taste-Off. This Saturday, August 30, from 10 a.m. to noon the public is invited to give their taste buds a workout, with clipboards in hand, and decide which of the dozens of varieties of tomatoes is deemed supreme above all others. 

Quail Hill has grown 52 varieties of tomato in the cherry, paste and heirloom tomato families, offering a veritable cornucopia of tastes, textures and colors – red, pink, orange, yellow, purple and green — that will adorn the tables at this year’s Amagansett taste-off. For the first time in taste-off history, paste tomatoes  will be tasted in sauce form, which is what they are cultivated for.

With the exception of the wildly popular Sun Gold variety – a historic crowd favorite at the taste-off – and a handful of other varieties, all of the tomatoes at Quail Hill Community Farm are open pollinated varieties which, unlike hybrid tomatoes, reproduce seed. According to Quail Hill farmer and manager Scott Chaskey, many of the 2008 varieties were cultivated from 2007 favorites.

“We save quite a few of our own seed,” he said on Monday. “They adapt to our own soil, and over the years we have stronger plants that withstand weather and disease better. We save the varieties we really love each year.”

Cultivating varieties of tomato that are suited to Quail Hill Community Farm’s soil, and are therefore stronger, is particularly of benefit when dealing with this delicate fruit, explained Chaskey. While tomatoes need irrigation when first planted, like most people on the East End each summer, they thrive in a warm climate, basking in the sun’s rays.

Staff at the organic farm has noted the tomatoes are “fast ripening on the vine” and the farm is gearing up for another great harvest; but Chaskey adds this season’s crop more accurately falls between last year’s amazing harvest and two years ago when the farm was forced to cancel the taste-off after six inches of rain.

“I would say it has been a tough tomato year,” said Chaskey. “We plant so many different kinds of crops – one year one is weak, one year it’s another. That is kind of the cycle of farm life.” 

Chaskey said what complicated things this year has been the heavy rain storms the region experienced recently, with hail being reported on the East End along with thunder, lightning and — unfortunately for local tomatoes — buckets of rain. Throw in a chilly spring, which meant tomatoes were planted later than usual, and a few varieties are just now getting to that juicy, tart and sweet ripeness that signals a local tomato.

Regardless, said Chaskey, tasters can expect at least 40 solid varieties of tomatoes to enjoy on Saturday.

“That was a bit ago,” said Chaskey of the stormy weather. “And we have had beautiful sunny days and that is what they love.”

Quail Hill Community Farm is a stewardship project of the Peconic Land Trust, and is located on 214 acres of land donated by Sag Harbor resident Deborah Ann Light producing some 275 varieties of organically produced vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers.

While the farm has grown leaps and bounds in its almost 20 year history, a tomato taste-off would not have been possible in the farm’s infancy, mostly because Chaskey had yet to be seduced by the fruit.

“Interestingly enough, when we started I was not a tomato lover,” he laughed. “I had not grown up eating heirloom or open pollinated varieties of tomatoes, so in the beginning I was not at all fond of them and neither was the fellow I farmed with so we didn’t really grow them. Then along came an apprentice who talked us into it.”

And Chaskey was converted, now delighting in meeting fellow tomato lovers, swapping seeds and secrets of the trade at conferences, which was where the concept for a taste-off was born.

Jane Weissman, who has been with Quail Hill since its establishment in 1990 and is the event coordinator for the Great Tomato Taste-Off remembers she and Chaskey were at a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) conference when she attended a forum on community involvement.

“And there was a guy from Oregon who spoke about a great tomato taste-off,” she remembered. Weissman, who has been honored for her work in community gardens in New York City and was director of Green Thumb, the city’s community gardening program, knew she had done enough harvest events in her career where she could pull off a taste-off at Quail Hill.

“The first year there were 19 tomatoes, now we have 52,” she said.

The event has also evolved from a community-based experience to one that attracts tomato lovers far and wide to Amagansett, not just to taste the tomatoes, added Weissman, but to learn about new varieties for their own gardens.

Weissman, who treasures the tomato season each year, personally makes sure she tries each and every tomato at the taste-off, and advocates the use of bread and water the farm supplies to ensure palates stay fresh amid gorging on the acidic fruit.

“There are always the Sungolds and the Matt’s,” said Weissman of two of the most popular varieties, which nabbed first and second place respectively at last year’s event. “Other tomatoes, their tastes are just more complex. They don’t hit you over the head – it’s not the burst the Sungold provides, but the flavor blossoms in your mouth … these jewels are precious and the window is so slim, you have to treasure them.”

The 2008 Quail Hill 11th Annual Great Tomato Taste Off will be held from 10 a.m. to noon at Quail Hill Community Farm at Side Hill and Deep Lane in Amagansett. Admission is $10 for non-farm members, $5 for farm members and is free for children under 12.