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Tomato tasters get fill

August 28, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

Lemon Boy, Favorita, Big Beef and Cherokee Purple were back again this year, but Pink Ping Pong, Arkansas Traveler and Super Bush failed to make the field Wednesday.

They sound like the names of thoroughbred race horses, and some of them are thoroughbred - tomatoes.

Scores of people circled the tables, not a track, Wednesday for the third annual Tomato Taste Trial sponsored by the Penn State Cooperative Extension Service and the Franklin County Master Gardeners.

Interspersed among the sliced and diced cherry, slicer, yellow and unusual varieties were toothpicks and crackers to allow the tasters to sample the 23 selections and cleanse their palates as they moved from one to another at the Franklin County Horticultural Center.

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"I think I gave D the best in both flavor and aesthetics," said Rene Berard of Chambersburg, a retired dentist from Boston who recently moved to this area. That was the Black Plum cherry tomato.

While the tasters were able to see and sample the tomatoes, they had to wait until they were done to get the key and compare the letter identification to the name of the heirloom or hybrid.

"We'll maintain the top two from each category and will grow them again next year," said Master Gardener Raymond Eckhart. Those varieties will be mixed in with a new group of contenders at next year's taste test.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of varieties of tomatoes, a favorite of backyard gardeners and truck farmers in the Cumberland Valley. First domesticated in Central America, Eckhart said tomatoes belong to the genus Lycopersicon and are related to potatoes.

Most of the tomatoes we shop for in stores are hybrids, which have such marketable qualities as uniform size, disease resistance, productivity and shelf life, Eckhart said.

They may not always be bred for taste, and the qualities of hybrids can vary from year to year, he said.

The heirloom varieties, however, are different.

Tomatoes are self-pollinating and "after several generations that will define all the genetic characteristics of the fruit and the seeds will breed true," Eckhart said. "You can save the seeds and you're going to get the same type of tomato year after year."

Rain was starting to fall, just like it did at last year's contest, and Steve Bogash was flipping burgers in a barn near the tomato tasting. Plenty of sliced tomatoes stood by to top the burgers.

"Tomatoes are a pretty darn important crop around here," said Bogash, the horticulture extension agent. Mountain Fresh, Mountain Gold and Carolina Gold are three of the big hybrids grown in the area. In season, thousands of pounds of them are sold weekly at the Shippensburg (Pa.) Auction Center and Cumberland Valley Auction, also near Shippensburg.

Within a year or two, he said, he expects produce sales at those two businesses to top $10 million a year, and not just for tomatoes.

"Our sweet corn and cantaloupes around here are top-notch," he said.

Eckhart said he was worried up to the last few days that some tomatoes would not be ready for the taste test. A cool, wet spring and early summer slowed planting and ripening, but recent hot, sunny weather brought the plants around.

In addition to tasting tomatoes, the extension services and master gardeners offered tips on planting, cultivating and preserving tomatoes, along with tomato cheddar pie, summer tomato salad and gazpacho.

"Very meaty, lack of seeds and sweet flavor. I don't like them with that tart, acidic taste," said Arthur McArthur of Waynesboro, Pa. He favored the end of the alphabet, slicer varieties that included Brandy Boy, Burracker's Favorite and Cherokee Purple.

McArthur said he is not big on the cherry tomatoes his wife often puts in salads. "Those are the ones I pick out," he said.

"I was surprised at the different tastes. I really, really liked Sweet Baby Girl," Shirley Fitz of Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., said of the cherry tomato variety.

Husband Rod Fitz said he liked several varieties, including Dr. Wyche's Yellow, but after tasting almost two dozen tomatoes, "you certainly get tomatoed-out."

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