(a tuscan heirloom tomato. Sweet and juicy. Great simply sliced with a drizzle of olive oil.)
Or at least that’s one of the monikers used last night at the Slow Food Tomato Feast. They like their Latin at the Slow Food clubhouse. Which makes sense since the latin term is the same if you’re in Nanaimo, BC or Marrakech, Morocco.
The tomato event was hosted by the delightful host with the most, Nick Versteeg, at the Laughing Geese in the Cowichan Valley. Nick is the producer with DV Cuisine, a company specializing in producing culinary and food documentaries and short features from around the world. We were all to bring a dish made with local tomatoes. The invitation ended with a dared to bring a dessert.
Well, you know me and dares. More about my dish later.
Other guests were mostly from the Cowichan Valley or the Victoria and surrounding area. There were farmers, educators, chefs and just folks who liked a good meal. The.Vancouver Island Slow Food convivium is led by the culinary jedi, Sinclair Philip of Sooke Harbour House and the talented culinary diva, Mara Jernigan, from nearby Fairburn Farms.. A convivium is Latin (of course) for a feast. In the case of the Slow Food movement, it is not only a feast for the belly, but a feast for the mind and soul. There is a deep sense of respect and appreciation for food that I found at this gathering that I haven’t experienced in a long time in the company of others.
Usually I’m the only one at the table who cares where the food came from, it’s lineage, it’s story. Though most of my dinner companions are nice enough to humor my culinary rhapsodizing, most couldn’t care less which farm the beef came from or what variety of apples are in the pie. At best, I find someone eager to learn, explore and celebrate food, if only for a meal. At worse, food is treated as background noise to television.
I hate that. Really.
As a friend once so eloquently put it, ‘I’d rather that you just not eat it, than to eat and not even taste it because you’re too busy watching another fucking ‘Friends’ rerun.’
Now, this Slow Food event is not a meeting of Foodies. They weren’t a bunch a gourmet snobs pooh-poohing what the peasants are eating. In many ways, these were the peasants. These are the folks who connected food from farm to fork. Throughout the evening I had conversations with guests about gathering of food and what simple feasts could be had right off the land. I had conversations about growing up at the farm and sharing family recipes and the connecting of food to our identity. The food they brought was simple, rustic fare highlighting the lovely tomato. There wasn’t a single speck of gold dust or contorted vegetable garnish in sight. There was no chastising for eating the 'wrong' food, merely reveling in real food.
Tomatoes took centre stage and they weren’t shy about it. The evening was a many chaptered story on local tomatoes. After a small taste of a wonderful roasted cherry tomato soup made by Don Genova, (yes, the host of Pacific Palate), we gathered outside on the cool evening patio, surrounded by whispering trees and the calls of chortling geese.
Derek, a local farmer and tomato expert from Pender Island, gave a small lecture on the growing tomatoes and the importance of seed saving, especially heirloom or heritage varieties. I learned that tomatoes, like grapes, take on different characteristics depending on the soil. I also caught bits and nibbles of the other’s culinary travels and tidbits of intricacies of European agricultural and culinary bureaucracy.
On a small table were a variety of heirloom tomatoes of various shapes, colours and sizes. Having tasted any of these garden beauties, one would wondered, why the heck are they only selling the insipid, tasteless ones at the supermarket?
Well, because they can. Because they can genetically modify perfect looking ones that produce a ton of cloned fruit and a ton of money. Of course, that means consumers end up with a bunch of ‘Barbie doll’ tomatoes.
Because the agro-corporations are betting that the public won’t put out the extra 25 cents a pound for properly grown, flavour-bursting heirloom varieties that haven’t had fish genes spliced into them.
They’re betting that the public are a herd of stupid, cheap, superficial consumers that have had their taste buds chemically burned off by years of fast food.
Oops, now how did that soapbox get there???
BTW, for anyone out there who’s growing tomatoes in their garden, you can stop watering them. Just let them ripen on their own. They need to be somewhere warmer. Either move those babies inside if they’re in containers or just pick the fruit and let it ripe on it’s own. Store them in a box in a dark, mildly humid room and let them naturally ripen. They’ll naturally release ethylene gas which stimulates ripening. Ripening this way isn’t quite as yummy as vine-ripened but it sure beats those
artificially gassed, factory-farmed bland-bombs you find at the supermarket.
(my golden boys. Sorry about the eBay quality of the photos).
The rest of the evening was spent eating tomatoes. Mara Jernigan made a simple and sublime yellow tomato sorbet topped with raw tuna. There was something so familiar, yet exciting about that taste combination. The light, sweetness of the yellow tomato sorbet cleansed the palate as it melted to make way for the rich tuna. Many brought salads to showcase the bright, fresh flavour of our local tomatoes. Married with local cheeses and herbs, these dishes were a fine example of simple, rustic fare at it’s best. Others brought simple slow roasted dishes. One young lady brought a gorgeous slow-roasted Moroccan tomato dish that had such an intense flavour, it was like having the Mediterranean sun in my mouth. Another guest had brought a slow roasted tomato topped with pesto.
Joyce, a vivacious and absolutely delicious creature from Victoria, brought the only other dessert: A cheesecake topped with a tomato, ginger and salal berry sauce. The ginger did a great job adding a bit of zing to highlight the sweetness of the tomatoes. I could totally see the sauce dribbled over vanilla gelato or topping for crepes.
Blessed with bounty of tomatoes, I decided I could sacrifice some for a green tomato dessert. After a few failed experiments, I ended up with a green tomato dish done in three variations. I started with a basic olive oil cookie recipe.
For the first variation, I did a biscotti with local hazelnuts and green tomato marmalade filling. The second variation, I used the same cookie dough recipe and made jam cookies with a dollop of Little Qualicum’s fromage frais and a dollop of green tomato marmalade in the middle. The third variation, I made a green tomato crumble with the plain olive oil cookies lining the dish and a green tomato filling which was basically chopped green tomatoes, lemon zest and organic cane sugar cooked for a 10 mins over medium heat, dumped in the cookie lined dish and topped with chopped local hazelnuts and crumble mix. Bake for 30 mins at 350F. I wouldn’t have posted a picture of that but it’s all gone ;)
One lady remarked that the crumble tasted like something that would come from a farm. From this group, I take that as a huge compliment.
Despite the bounty of food laid out for us, this was not the Gluttony Bowl. We were given modest lunch size plates that were just big enough so we could all have a taste of everything. There was no heaping of food onto one’s plate, no shovelling of food into one’s mouth. All around, people savoured and relished and appreciated the bounty bite by bite. We chatted and shared food stories.
Time and time again, I heard folks remark, ‘We are so lucky.’
Yes, we certainly are.