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Judges put tomatoes to the test at Pa. event

August 25, 2005|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

bonnieb@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Some people are really, really serious about tomatoes.

The Isis Candy cherry tomato has been described as having "a complex blend of richness, sweetness and fruitiness," which makes it sound more like a fine wine than something you can grow in your backyard.

On Wednesday, the public had the opportunity to taste 27 varieties of tomatoes from A to Z to AA and form their own opinions about their sweetness, tartness, bouquet or any other characteristics they might detect.

The blind taste test - well, maybe not completely blind, but certainly myopic - was organized for the fifth year in a row by the Franklin County Master Gardeners. They set up long tables covered with bright red tablecloths under a blue-and-white striped tent beside the trial plots where most of the samples were grown. A few varieties came from their own gardens.

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A whole tomato was displayed at each letter, and little pieces of that variety sat on paper plates in front of it. People came along and sampled them, rating each on a scale from 1 (the worst) to 5 (the best).

The fruits (a tomato is botanically a fruit, not a vegetable) were judged on taste and aesthetics, or appearance.

At least one taster thought there needed to be another category on the evaluation sheet.

"The skins," Mary Collis said. "Some are very tough. You don't know whether to spit it out or swallow it. I don't personally like that."

Five categories of tomato were tested: slicers, plum/paste, cherry, unusual and yellow, according to Linda Secrist, vice president of the Master Gardeners.

"The two favorites in each category will be grown again next year, along with new varieties in that category," she said.

About 100 people over the course of the afternoon tasted tiny yellow pear tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and very small red tomatoes, some as small as a pencil eraser.

Some specimens had serious cosmetic issues, such as the black tomatoes, which are actually a deep purple-red with black streaks.

"Not everyone likes the same thing," Secrist said.

Collis' husband, Harry, is discriminating about his tomatoes also, considering the flavors carefully. His favorite variety, which was not included in the taste test, is a Burpee Supersteak, he said.

"It has the right acidity, the right sweetness, and is better than a regular beefsteak tomato."

The Collises, who recently moved to Chambersburg from Charles Town, W.Va., have been growing tomatoes for 30 years.

When they were about halfway around the tables, Harry had not yet rated any sample above a 3. Mary wondered if people started at AA and went backward, if the results would be different.

John and Debbie Ridge of Greencastle, Pa., both liked sample J, which turned out to be a Giant Valentine Hyb. John said he's a low-acid tomato eater, enjoying mainly the yellows and oranges. Debbie likes a meaty tomato with few seeds. Their favorite way to eat tomatoes is a thick slice on a piece of toast with mayonnaise. They've been growing tomatoes "forever," and when they tire of eating them fresh, they make juice, salsa and stewed tomatoes.

After rating all the varieties, participants received a paper telling them the names of all the tomatoes.

The tomato labeled "AA" was an Azoychka, an heirloom variety from Russia, and was described as "a beautifully smooth, lemon-yellow fruit ... very flavorful, rich but pleasantly sweet with a delicious hint of citrus."

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