The Incredible Edible
Vicki Emlaw is a farmer, an artist, an archivist, and the builder of an ark containing over 100 varieties of tomatoes she grows from seed sourced from other farmers like her across North America. This year, 120 varieties were available for tasting, most of them over 100 years old.
September 14, 2015 Text: David Rollins | Photography: Rob Lee
In the 19th century, visitors to Florence occasionally succumbed to a particular illness dubbed the Stendhal syndrome, after the Swiss novelist who was overcome by a paralyzing ecstasy while viewing the frescoes of the Basilica de Santa Croce. Such was our thrall last Saturday morning, at the Annual Heirloom Tomato Tasting at Vicki’s Veggies in Picton, Ontario. One hundred and twenty different varieties of tomato, each a miniature masterpiece. Overwhelming.
Her feast table
shows the creative evidence
of an artist’s obsession.
The delirious physical response to so much natural beauty quickly gave way to panic when we realized that the tomatoes were disappearing. Everything was for sale, and it was going fast. The best ones were already gone. We immediately started throwing tomatoes into a box of our own, and it quickly became so heavy we had to put it down. But then people started taking tomatoes out of our box. One of us actually had to stand guard. It nearly came to pushing.
What’s the big deal? Ripe, organic, heirloom tomatoes, roasted to perfection by September sun and still warm from the vine: one of the most appealing and satisfying things in the world. The experience goes beyond taste and colour, fragrance and texture, to evoke a response that’s at once spiritual and animal. It inspires both awe before the infinite diversity of nature, and the frantic impulse to grab as much as you can and squirrel it away for the dark days to come.
One vine of eggplant-coloured
tomatoes was coated with
an incredibly fine
dust of gold.
Vicki’s 20-acre farm was recently certified organic; the quality of the soil is at the heart of her farming philosophy. The seeds for her tomatoes come from other farmers and seed collectors, along with descriptions of the type of tomato they’ll grow. Each heirloom also bears a name that’s sometimes descriptive (Ozark Sunrise is a blaze of orange and purple, Sunrise Bumblebee is small, yellow and sweet as honey) and frequently whimsical (Amazon Chocolate, Red Zebra, Dancing with Smurfs…).
Her favourite is Black Crick, a walnut-sized ‘black’ tomato with smoky green and red shading. “I grew this variety from seeds I didn’t know the name of. It turned out to be something I’ve been wanting for a while to grow for a while – a more substantially sized small black tomato, with lots of ‘meat’ on it. And it’s growing really well here, so I named it after the Black River, which is essentially across the street from the farm.”
She calls herself a farmer, but her feast table shows the creative evidence of an artist’s obsession. Her greenhouse, with its varietal vines strung up “two-by-two” looks startlingly like an ark. Its hypnotic aroma of warm tomato leaves draws us in, and we wander between rows, discovering colours and shade combinations that seem impossible: one tomato is green and red at the same time, like iridescent silk, or a maple tree whose leaves are half-flushed with fall colour.
One vine of eggplant-coloured tomatoes was coated with an incredibly fine dust of gold. “Our hands were covered with it yesterday during the picking,” one of Vicki’s farmhands explains. “It’s pollen.”
We carried home a case of 17 pounds, and have been treating the tomatoes like rare eggs. Their colours and flavours have continued to grow and evolve in the two weeks since picking; one green and purple specimen is turning the colour of lobster bisque. Tonight we’ll have the last of them, sliced simply and served with the Tomato Granita from the July issue of Food & Wine. Aside from some simple seasonings, its only ingredient is tomato water, which to me tastes more like tomato than anything else – it captures all the sweetness and tang you associate with tomatoes, but also tastes like hot sun and dry earth. We reduced the amount of vinegar and honey in the original recipe, to let these flavours shine through.
Heirloom tomatoes with
serves 4 as a side dish
- 5 medium-sized tomatoes
- 3 tsp. red wine vinegar
- 3 tsp. honey
- 2 dashes celery bitters (optional)
- a pinch of salt
- Core and dice the tomatoes, then liquefy in a blender.
- Strain the resulting liquid in a fine-meshed sieve lined with two layers of cheesecloth or paper towels and set over a large bowl. Let strain overnight. This should produce about a cup of tomato water.
- Discard the strained solids. Mix the tomato water that has collected in the bowl with the vinegar, honey, bitters (if using) and salt.
- Pour the tomato water into an 8” glass baking dish or pie plate and freeze for one hour.
- Using a fork, scrape and mash the semi-frozen tomato water into a homogenous slush.
- Repeat every 60 minutes until the slush is of uniform colour and texture, like shaved ice.
Serve with sliced tomatoes that have been drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper.
Act quickly; the granita melts almost instantly.