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The Tomato Explosion : deck tk

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fred Leavitt walks the dusty rows of his tomato field, trying to explain what he’s doing. On either side of him are massive 2-by-4 trellises taller than he is. They are bolted together to form a frame, and to those frames are strung taut strings. Tomato plants snake their way up the strings.

It’s quite a sight, spread over several acres of the hot, flat land outside Firebaugh in the central San Joaquin Valley. And oddly enough, it somehow sums up the upside-down nature of today’s fresh tomato industry.

What Leavitt is building out here is a way to grow hothouse tomatoes outdoors--essentially, an outdoor greenhouse. As California farmers scramble to maintain their edge in a tomato world gone awry, no idea seems too far-fetched. They’re even talking about growing better-tasting tomatoes.

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In the last five years, according to Department of Agriculture statistics, American tomato production has declined 20% while tomato imports have nearly tripled. What’s worse, while California growers earn an average of 25 cents a pound for fresh tomatoes, imported tomatoes average more than 40 cents a pound, with some countries earning double that.

Mexico is the leader, primarily because of seasonality. Most of the 1.5 million pounds it exported to the United States last year were harvested in winter, when tomatoes will still ripen in Mexico’s warm climate. Florida, the main U.S. source of winter tomatoes, has seen its production plummet more than 40% since 1992.

What worries California growers is that seasonality no longer seems to be the key. Mexico now exports tomatoes here even in summer.

Still more troubling to the growers is this: The second-leading exporter of tomatoes to the United States is the Netherlands, a country not known for its balmy clime. In fact, American imports of Dutch tomatoes have increased more than 800% in the last five years. And the Dutch are earning a whopping 80 cents a pound.

Almost all of those Dutch and Mexican summer tomatoes are grown in greenhouses, and almost all are specialty varieties: clusters of tomatoes still on the vine, tiny teardrop-shaped tomatoes and the yellow and orange round tomatoes that are showing up even in mainstream markets.

All of this has sparked a not-so-quiet revolution in the California tomato world. For consumers, it means more varieties and sometimes better flavor. For farmers like Leavitt, it means reinventing a business that has remained essentially the same in California for decades.

“For the first 25 years I was in this business, there were basically three kinds of tomatoes: mature-greens, vine-ripes and cherries,” he says. “Now you’ve got all of these others. The last five years have been something else.”

How many types of tomatoes are enough? According to Ed Beckman of the California Tomato Commission, supermarkets in the United States routinely stock eight to 11 kinds. Some, like the Larry’s markets in Seattle, will handle up to 22 varieties.

“Our industry is diversifying,” Beckman says. “Guys used to grow one type of tomato--maybe they always grew mature-greens, or just vine-ripes. Now they like to grow some Romas, some yellows, maybe an organic plot or two, and now some clusters, because they’re selling well.”

In one typical Southern California upscale produce department last week, the shopper had a choice of cluster tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, medium vine-ripe slicing tomatoes, mature-green tomatoes, cherry tomato clusters, cherry tomatoes in a box, hothouse tomatoes, jumbo vine-ripes and a special locally grown hothouse tomato.

Even in a less affluent neighborhood there were half a dozen choices: Romas, hothouses, tray-packs, cherries, large vine-ripes and clusters imported from the Netherlands.

So far, those specialty tomatoes are niche players. According to a survey done this summer by the California Tomato Commission, more than 80% of the tomatoes purchased in California supermarkets are still either extra-large vine-ripes, medium mature-greens or Romas. All the hothouse varieties together accounted for only 7% of sales.

But niche or not, they are important in the cutthroat world of supermarket produce departments.

“It’s not necessarily the cluster tomato itself that’s the draw, it’s being able to say I offer X varieties of tomatoes,” Beckman says. “Right now studies show the produce department is the determining factor in why a shopper chooses a store. It’s more important that you can get it if you want it than if you actually want it.

“It’s competition. As soon as one market adds one tomato, the others will say, ‘Well, we need to go ahead and at least just test that one out.’ ”

The commercial varieties of most of these niche tomatoes were developed by Israeli agronomists. While American tomato breeders were focusing on small improvements in a few standard varieties, in Europe the world was being turned upside-down. The average value of Israeli tomato exports to the U.S. has increased from 20 cents a pound to more than 75 cents a pound in the last five years.

Today, the California tomato industry is finally making its big push, with more than $500,000 a year being devoted to research. Most of that goes to private seed companies rather than to the traditional agricultural universities. And those seed companies aren’t probing the subtleties of disease resistance or ability to tolerate shipping.

“In the past, we were focusing on incremental increases, getting slightly better tomatoes every year,” Beckman says. “That approach is not going to work when you’re trying to make a quantum leap to high-color, high-flavor varieties.”

Making that leap entails many difficult questions with no single answer. How a tomato tastes is the result of a complex series of events that starts at the seed company and doesn’t end until you’ve sliced it at home.

But at least growers are starting to take flavor seriously, says Keith Knapp, marketing and product development consultant for Hazera Quality Seeds, an Israeli company that is beginning to sell specialty tomato seeds in California.

“The long and the short of it is, what growers have been trying to do for the last 20 years is just to get a tomato they could ship,” he says. “They could have cared less about flavor. They wanted a smooth, rounded deep-red tomato that looked pretty when it got wherever it was going. Now they’re starting to talk about taste.

“What we’re trying to accomplish is a higher-quality tomato that will fill demands of the consumer today. Consumers have been complaining, and finally someone is taking notice that they want a better tomato, a tomato with flavor, with some color, one that tastes like a tomato. That’s what we’re aiming at.”

Creating a supermarket tomato with true backyard taste may be pie in the sky. But Hazera’s Knapp and Catherine Thome, a plant breeder for Seminis Vegetable Seeds Research in San Juan Bautista, say it’s possible.

“We’re looking for a tomato that will have longer shelf life, that can be left on the vine until 25% to 30% color and still be handled in a typical California harvest and that will have more sugar,” says Knapp, reciting a checklist of just about every desirable trait a commercial tomato could have. “We’re still a couple of years away.”

Thome says her company is talking about developing a California signature tomato that would fill just that niche. “Maybe that will happen, but it’s down the road.”

Beckman’s association held a planning session last year for growers and shippers to develop goals for seed companies to work on. “It came down to really three things,” he says. “Flavor, color and disease resistance. That’s where we’re focused.

“That’s interesting because the industry is now saying that we’re willing to trade off a few of the attributes we’ve always requested from plant breeders in terms of yield and the field in favor of flavor, color and other consumer characteristics. Growers never used to say that.”

Of course, talking about better flavor is only the first step in a long journey. In the first place, the definition of what is a good-tasting tomato varies from place to place.

“Tomato flavor is difficult because there are so many regional preferences,” Beckman says. “What people want from a tomato in Los Angeles is different from what people want in Minneapolis. You can’t breed for individual regional preferences, so you have to come down to what is acceptable to everyone and focus on that.”

Beckman says the key variable in taste is the amount of acidity. “Some areas of the country want acidic tomatoes. Los Angeles to me is a little more acidic; you want a little more tomato flavor. I think you’re used to using tomatoes a little differently. The reality is that on the East Coast, you don’t have a lot of fresh local tomatoes for most of the year. And by the time California tomatoes have gotten to the East Coast, they’ve gone through that rigorous distribution system that nobody likes.”

You can’t talk to tomato growers for very long before the distribution system comes up. Like the whale for Ahab, careless truckers, thoughtless warehouse operators and know-nothing retailers are always just below the surface whenever a grower talks about quality.

“The hardest thing is handing your tomatoes off to other people,” Leavitt says. “You can put a big black box around what happens from then on because there’s nothing you can do about it.

“It isn’t like truck farming when I was a kid in El Monte. Truck farmers there picked their produce in the afternoon, loaded it on a truck and took it into L.A. by 2 or 3 the next morning. That was it. Sure, that was a better tomato then.

“Today you have to deal with the realities of transporting a perishable product, and tomatoes in the ripe stage are just as perishable as it gets. If I pick some really ripe tomatoes from one of our fields to take home, I pick maybe four or five at a time, carefully put them in a bag and then lay them on the seat of the car. I sure don’t throw them in the trunk or on the floor because, even in my car, they won’t make the trip.”

Today, commercial tomatoes are typically put into buckets, dumped into huge gondola trucks and then driven over bumpy highways to packing houses. There, they are washed and sorted and packed into boxes. From the packing house, the tomatoes go by truck to supermarket warehouses hundreds or even thousands of miles away. From the central warehouses, they are trucked to individual markets.

And that’s the best-case scenario. Many tomatoes pass through the hands of middlemen called re-packers before they get to the supermarket warehouses. Because supermarkets don’t want to have to deal with the tomatoes longer than necessary, re-packers buy tomatoes from various packing houses, sort them by size, type and ripeness, and ship them to supermarket warehouses as they become ready to sell. That convenience adds another variable to the shipping equation.

At any step, what might have been a perfect tomato can be ruined. One of the worst enemies of tomato flavor is cold. Being stored at cooler than 50 degrees for any time destroys flavor-producing chemical compounds in the tomato.

Yet despite a five-year campaign by the industry to keep tomatoes away from cooler cases, at one store we visited last week, all the tomatoes were refrigerated. One tomato package had a warning against refrigeration in large print but was in the cooler case anyway.

“The reality is that any number of things kill tomato flavor, and what you see out in the field and what leaves the packing shed and what gets through the distribution system are very different things,” Beckman says.

After sampling various types of specialty tomatoes bought from local supermarkets, it must be said that most were pretty undistinguished. While the cotton-centered, rock-skinned, pale-pink tomatoes of yesterday are scarce, so are tomatoes with anything near what could be considered backyard flavor.

The two exceptions were a cluster of cherry tomatoes in a net bag and a yellow round tomato. The cherries had a great balance of sweet and tart but were a little crunchy. The yellow was not quite so deeply flavored but was still identifiably tomato-like. Both were from Mexico and both were hothouse varieties.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they were grown indoors. In this brave new world of tomato technology, a hothouse tomato is no longer necessarily an indoor tomato. They are, quite literally, a whole different breed.

Most tomatoes grown in California are called determinate: At a certain point, the plant will stop growing on its own. Hothouse tomatoes are usually indeterminate. In Mexico, they sometimes climb 20 feet of trellis and will last the better part of a year.

Some of the new indeterminate varieties are better--or at least different--and climbing a trellis turns out to be one of the keys. Most California tomatoes are bred for what is called “ground culture,” which means that they sprawl over the ground in unruly clumps, making them difficult to tend and almost impossible to harvest more than once.

When tomatoes are trellised, they can be more carefully tended, and pickers can go through a field many times, taking only the ripest fruit, rather than doing the one-shot sweep necessitated by ground culture.

This approach is expensive. Estimates for start-up costs for greenhouse-type operations run up to $100,000 per acre. Growers are gambling that the investment will work if amortized over many years against the higher prices these new tomatoes will draw, even considering the cost of the careful hand-pruning they require.

And these tomatoes do take tending. Leavitt points out a sample plot of clusters he’s trying. Those little herringbone stems, each with the same number of tomatoes on them, don’t just happen. Each cluster must be pruned into shape by hand.

All of it strikes Leavitt as a little ironic.

“We’ve spent years and years trying to develop a tomato that wouldn’t have a trace of a stem left on it when you picked it,” he says. “Now everybody says that’s wrong. We want to see a stem. All those hothouse tomatoes have stems; the cluster tomatoes have stems.

“I sometimes think it’s fashion. Now we’ve got designer tomatoes, just like designer wallets or shoes or whatever. I don’t think these [new tomato varieties] necessarily fill a taste niche or anything like that. People are probably buying them as much for the aesthetic value as anything else.”

In fact, he ponders, it might be the stem itself that is the attraction of the cluster tomato more than what comes attached to it. “They smell more like garden tomatoes people remember,” he says. “There’s that sharp acrid smell of the leaves.”

Beckman says that if that’s what shoppers want, that’s what shoppers will get. “It comes down to meeting the needs of our customers. I think what you’re seeing is that the industry is willing to experiment and try new things. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”

RED AND YELLOW TOMATO SOUP

This soup is on the menu of Echo, Tim Woods and Adams Holland’s restaurant in Fresno. It can be made only in summer and is a celebration of the tomato in its purest and simplest form. It is completely dependent upon the quality of the tomatoes you have. They should be very ripe, but if you have mediocre tomatoes, you will have mediocre soup.

3 pounds red tomatoes

3 pounds yellow tomatoes

Salt

2 ounces freshly grated dry Jack cheese

Cut red tomatoes into 1/2-inch dice and place in bowl. Cut yellow tomatoes in 1/2-inch dice and place in separate bowl. Sprinkle each with pinch of salt; set aside for 20 minutes.

Keeping red and yellow tomatoes separate, pass each through food mill. Then pass red and yellow tomato purees separately through fine sieve, pressing with back of ladle.

Pour each puree into separate pan and bring to boil immediately before serving. Season each to taste with salt.

Using two ladles, one in each hand, scoop equal amounts of red and yellow tomato soup and simultaneously pour into warm bowls. Do not worry about making the visual presentation perfect; the soup should look like it comes from the home.

Garnish with Jack cheese.

6 servings. Each serving with cheese:

130 calories; 140 mg sodium; 8 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 21 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 2.88 grams fiber.

MOROCCAN STUFFED TOMATOES

This recipe is from Deborah Madison’s upcoming “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” (Broadway Books, October 1997), an encyclopedic cookbook from the author of “The Greens Cookbook” and “The Savory Way.” Choose ripe but fairly firm tomatoes for stuffing so that they will hold up to the oven’s heat. If necessary, slice a sliver off the bottom so that they can stand upright.

CHERMOULA

4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup finely chopped cilantro

1/3 cup finely chopped parsley

1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Juice of 2 large lemons or to taste

STUFFED TOMATOES

4 firm tomatoes

Chermoula

3/4 cup bread crumbs from day-old bread

Oil for greasing dish

CHERMOULA

Pound garlic with salt in mortar until smooth. Add cilantro and parsley and pound a little more to bruise leaves and release flavor. Stir in paprika, cumin, cayenne, olive oil and lemon juice.

STUFFED TOMATOES

Cut tomatoes in half around equators and gently remove seeds with fingertips. Lightly fill each with Chermoula. Sprinkle bread crumbs evenly on top of each tomato.

Bake in oiled gratin dish at 400 degrees 30 minutes. Tomatoes will be soft so remove carefully from dish.

4 servings. Each serving:

193 calories; 79 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 15 grams fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 1.17 grams fiber.

POMODORI RIPIENI (Tomatoes Filled with Rice)

Carol Field collected this recipe in “In Nonna’s Kitchen” (Harper Collins, 1997), her new book on the cooking of Italian grandmothers. She says: “Everything Andreina Pavani Calcagni does in this traditional Roman recipe goes against conventional wisdom. Cook tomatoes in an oven hot enough for pizza? Fill them with such a small amount of rice? It works magnificently. The extreme heat concentrates the flavor and sweetness of the tomatoes and brings out moisture that, along with the oil, cooks the rice perfectly. Andreina slides individual slices of potato between the tomatoes to separate them in the baking pan. The olive oil cooks the potato slices; if you want, you can take the tomatoes out of the pan when they are done and continue to cook the potatoes until they are crispy.”

3 pounds tomatoes, all same size, not too ripe

Salt

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/3 cup minced basil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon minced marjoram

5 mint leaves, chopped

3/4 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 or 2 boiling potatoes, peeled, cut in half crosswise, then sliced lengthwise 1/2 inch thick

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

Wash and dry tomatoes thoroughly. Cut horizontal slice at top of each tomato to form flap that will cover tomato when it is cooked and served; do not cut through.

Cut tiny, dime-sized piece out of bottom so tomato will balance easily. Carefully scoop out pulp with small paring knife and spoon, leaving shell 1/4- to 3/8-inch thick. Discard seeds and juices. Salt interiors of tomatoes and let them drain upside down while preparing filling. Chop pulp and put in bowl.

Mix parsley, basil, garlic, marjoram, mint and 1 teaspoon salt with chopped tomato pulp. Stir in rice and 1/4 cup olive oil. Season to taste with salt and mix well.

Place tomatoes in lightly oiled baking pan sufficient to hold them without crowding. Tuck potato slices between tomatoes. (Note: Potatoes help prop up tomatoes, so slide them in where you need them.) Spoon rice filling into tomatoes. Let extra filling overflow onto potatoes. Drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil over tops of tomatoes and potatoes and sprinkle with oregano. Put flap of tomato over top to cover.

Bake at 450 degrees 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees, baste tomatoes with liquid accumulated in pan and bake 50 to 60 minutes. Siphon off excess liquid with bulb baster. If potatoes need extra cooking to become crisp, leave them in oven or place under broiler until browned. Serve hot.

10 servings. Each serving:

137 calories; 250 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.98 gram fiber.

SUMMERTIME BREAD AND TOMATO SALAD (Cialda Pugliese)

This twist on what has become a familiar summer salad comes from Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ “Flavors of Puglia” (Broadway Books, 1997). There, she says, cooks use round, melonlike fruits grown locally and called cocomeri that have a definite cucumber flavor. American cooks will make do with cucumbers themselves. The point of this salad is the bread. Cut thick slices from a rather stale country-style loaf and toast them slowly in the oven until they are golden brown and as hard as Holland rusks.

2 large tomatoes (about 1 pound), seeded and coarsely chopped

2 cucumbers, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

1 red onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small dried hot red chile, chopped, optional

6 (3/4-inch) slices stale country-style bread

1/4 cup ice water

1/4 cup aged red wine vinegar or Sherry vinegar

1/4 cup coarsely torn basil leaves

Combine tomatoes, cucumbers and onion and toss with hands to mix well. Add olive oil, generous pinch salt, pepper to taste and chile. Stir and set aside, covered with towel, 30 minutes to 1 hour to let flavors develop.

Place bread slices in single layer on baking sheet. Toast in oven at 350 degrees, turning once, until slices are golden brown on both sides and firm through, about 30 minutes. When ready to serve, dip toast slices quickly in bowl of water just to dampen, drain well and arrange on platter.

Pour 1/4 cup ice water and vinegar into vegetable mixture just before serving and mix well. Pile soupy salad on platter of bread, making sure each slice is well covered. Garnish with basil leaves and serve immediately.

6 servings. Each serving:

262 calories; 185 mg sodium; 1 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 21 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.21 grams fiber.


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