An encounter with an old Portuguese farmer more than 30 years ago forever changed the course of Gary Ibsen’s life. That’s when Ibsen was offered his first taste of a genuine, organically grown heirloom tomato. He took a bite of “Kellogg’sBreakfast,” sampled “Cherokee Purple,” then bit into “Brandywine.”
“The flavor blew me away, and I became a convert,” he says. Ibsen took home six varieties of heirloom tomato seedlings that day. With a new-found appreciation for true tomato flavor, he spearheaded a small gathering of tomato lovers 17 years ago, and from these humble beginnings grew the NatureSweet Carmel TomatoFest, a celebration in Carmel, Calif., of tomatoes, food and wine.
Heirloom varieties, both familiar and foreign, are featured, from exotic-tasting “Pineapple” and the complex smoky flavor of “Paul Robeson” to the boldly patterned colors of “Tigerella” and “Green Zebra.” Included in the mix is “Julia Child,” an intensely rich, deep pink tomato with a near perfect balance of acid to sugar and a texture that triumphs with firm, juicy flesh.
Ibsen’s love affair with tomatoes has made him somewhat of a celebrity within the Carmel community. And he enjoys introducing the object of his affection to everyone he meets. But his passion goes beyond the sensory pleasure and pure romance of heirloom tomatoes. It’s also about the cultural history and family stories that come with each variety. Like the Portuguese farmer before him, Ibsen celebrates the harvest of his favorite fruit. More than that, he’s carrying on a legacy.
By Kris Wetherbee, a freelance writer in Oakland, Ore.