Everyone knows that Jersey tomatoes are great. What you may not know is that Rutgers University is a leader in developing new tomatoes and is responsible for some of your favorites over the years. If you haven’t visited the annual Great Tomato Tasting at the Clifford E. and Melda C. Snyder Research and Extension Farm in Pittstown, what are you waiting for? Make plans to go this year.
My visit last year was my first and it totally blew my mind. Tomatoes of every size, shape and color imaginable were available in a seemingly endless amount.
Whether you are a cherry tomato lover, swear by a beefsteak, or only have eyes for plum tomatoes to make your Nonna’s secret sauce recipe, there are plenty to taste. Scattered across the grounds you will find multiple tents set up specifically for extra large beefsteaks, medium slicers, grape, cherry and paste tomatoes. Colors range from white, peach, green, purple, pink, orange, yellow, multi-colored and of course, 50 shades of red.
Peter Nitzsche, the Morris County agricultural agent for the Rutgers University Cooperative Agriculture Extension is on the planning committee for the event and shared with me that they are growing 160 varieties this year. Not all of those tomatoes will be ripe for the Great Tomato Tasting but he anticipates 60 tasting stations with varieties being cycled in when one variety runs out. With proper pacing of the stations, you may be able to taste over 100 tomatoes in one day.
“We tend to grow and serve a wide range of heirlooms and hybrids, specialty types and throw in commercial types to give people a comparison,” he says. “We usually have a bunch of new varieties and old standards to compare them.”
I love to make note of all of the names. Last year, I was impressed with the Georgia Streak, with meaty interior flesh mottled with red and gold. The juicy Bloody Butcher, mahogany-hued Black Prince and Sunrise Bumble Bee caught my eye and my tastebuds. Each tent is stocked with big yellow crates carefully labeled with their contents. One waiting stack was loaded with samples of Valley Girl, Yukon Quest, Sunny Boy, Sweet Tangerine, and the Wapsipnicon Peach, which is a mouthful in more ways than one.
There also varieties that have no names and are labeled with a series of numbers. Just as I am attracted to the names, so is everyone else and people can love a name more than a flavor. Nitzsche explains, “ Since I’m doing some work, we do an informal tasting and get people to rate them without knowing a name. Sometimes they are commercial varieties we want to get feedback on for growers and some are material out of Rutgers.”
This year they are working on a new tomato to release in 2016 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Rutgers. “We have three varieties that are contenders and we need the public to help us with choosing one,” Nitzsche notes. “They are medium slicers developed by Dr. Thomas Orton. We’ve selected seedlings that have good plant habit, fruit quality and flavor. We’re hoping participants like what we’ve got.”
All of the tomatoes are developed with traditional breeding which involves moving pollen from one plant to another, similar to what a bee would do except humans choose which plants to pollinate instead of bees to end up with the most desirable traits. (There are currently no GMO tomatoes on the market and there are no immediate plans for this.)
The drive to the farm, through Hunterdon County, is a lovely break from the hustle and bustle elsewhere. I suggest getting there as early as possible and taking your time at the event. Master gardeners volunteer to help staff the event alongside Rutgers faculty and staff. They will be happy to chat about growing tomatoes and how to cook and preserve them.
Salt shakers are available for self service at most tables. Nitzsche notes that some guests insist on salting their tomatoes but for scientific analysis he prefers to not salt because it is difficult to be consistent in applying salt.
With over 1,000 guests on average, expect some lines at the tasting tents. If one area is busy, consider wandering over to taste the basil, honey, apples and peaches that will also be available. Wagon ride tours of the farm take guests out to the research plots and your guide will talk about the research done at the farm and preservation of natural resources. This year a new feature is a sunflower pyramid made of examples varying in size from small to very, very tall. Sounds like a perfect spot to stop for a selfie. (Just be sure there isn’t any tomato juice on your shirt.)
Before you go, register online or call the hotline to fast-track your entry into the tasting.
The Synder Farm Open House and Great Tomato Tasting
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
3 to 7 p.m., rain or shine
Admission is $7 (cash or check). Children under 10 are free.
Clifford E. and Melda C. Snyder Research and Extension Farm
140 Locust Grove Road
Or call 908-730-9419, x3501