I first heard about the Heirloom Tomato Festival at Kendall-Jackson sometime after it started, in the '90s. "That sounds neat and all," I thought, as much a fan of heirloom tomatoes as the next guy, "but a whole festival?"
Yet each year I kept hearing about it, and seeing billboards, and dodging cars backed up on Fulton Road. I'd talk with people about my own tomatoes, and they'd invariably ask if I'd been to the festival. It became a hot ticket, always selling out. I just couldn't understand it.
Well, I finally went for the first time, and now I understand.
The Heirloom Tomato Festival isn't just bunch of people sitting around eating tomatoes, as I'd imagined. Although a large tent with myriad varieties ready for the toothpicking is a nice centerpiece (see above), mostly, the festival consists of 55 of the area's best restaurants crafting bite-size foodstuffs using heirloom tomatoes grown in Kendall-Jackson's gardens, and you, the patron, get to vote on who creates the tastiest thing to stuff in your mouth.
I chatted with a few of the chefs. Here's what they came up with.
Brandon Guenther from Rocker Oysterfeller's won my vote for the day. Although Nectar Restaurant's booth was also doing waffles, I loved the way the cornmeal in Guenther's waffles paired with his choice of tomatoes—Cherokees for the relish, and Sungolds for the syrup. I literally chuckled when I popped one in my mouth, it had such a unique taste, and that was even after Guenther had run out of the bacon he'd been using as well. I asked him why he chose waffles. "'Cause they're fun!" he said. "I mean, why not?"
Of course I had to check out The Girl and the Fig's booth, where Chris Jones had mini quiches with gruyère cheese, marmalade and Early Girls grown in the restaurant's own gardens. They were outstanding. "The tomatoes are kind of a disappointment this year," Jones told me, echoing the sentiments of every local grower who dealt with this year's unusually cold summer. "It seems late to be using the Early Girls, but actually they're happening now. I also wanted to use them because they're high in sugar, which goes well with the marmalade.""I don't even like tomatoes," Trishia Davis, from CutieCakes Bakeshop, told me. And yet she made my favorite dessert-style item of the day: a vanilla butter cake with pineapple- and cardamom-scented caramel and brown sugar heirlooms. The presence of the tomatoes didn't overwhelm, and the treats called "Sticky Fingers" were quaint and delicious—especially coming from someone who never uses tomatoes, other than each year at the festival. "I intended for it to taste like dessert," Davis said, plainly, "and not dinner." CutieCakes, in Sebastopol, is currently looking for a retail location; it'll no doubt be busy when it opens.
Let's face it—some booths phoned it in, like the sausage purveyor who slopped some scalding hot boiled tomatoes on a plate next to their regular sausage and called it good. But Adam Mali, from Nick's Cove, faced a slight dilemma when using heirlooms to top Nick's famous oysters: "I didn't have to think too hard," he told me of the simple concept, "but the tricky part was using the tomatoes without overpowering the oysters. I used purple, red and yellow varieties; I stayed away from the green ones." It worked out well.
By far, the longest line of the day, especially as the temperature climbed, was for Fiorello's Gelato. Owner Anthony Bonviso has been making the best gelato around for 29 years, but he can't take credit for the idea behind the Watermelon Tomato Mint Gelato he was serving. "Paul Schroeder, at Monti's," Bonviso told me. "He's the one who gave me the idea." As the 42 people waiting in line found out, it proved to be a good one, and was a cool way to cap off a nice, hot day. I've always bought Fiorello's at Traverso's in Santa Rosa, but this past year they've expanded into Whole Foods. Look for the plain, white-labeled pints!More Photos Below.