Tomato Taste Off sends taste buds soaring

 - Jennifer Morris/Staff photo
— image credit: Jennifer Morris/Staff photo

POULSBO — It was a record-breaking event Saturday at the Poulsbo Farmers Market’s fourth annual Tomato Taste Off, with nearly 30 ripe and hopeful entrants vying for the Best in Show crown.

But proving good things do come in small packages, an amateur-grown Sungold cherry tomato took top prize for the first time in the event’s history.

“I was floored,” said Best in Show gardener Tom Loushe of Poulsbo. “I almost didn’t come.”

Loushe said just two days before the event he was uncertain whether he could enter, as his tomatoes had yet to perfectly ripen. But ripen they did.

Loushe has been growing tomatoes as a hobby for 25 years. A few of his tricks include watering them from underneath instead of over the top, and surrounding the plants with bricks to help absorb heat during the day and release it at night.

“Growing tomatoes in the Northwest is no easy chore, that’s for sure,” he said.

Loushe said this was his first year contending in the Taste Off, and he was more than surprised at his victory.

“I thought, ‘Well, guess I’ll give it a try.’ They make it so easy. I thought it’d be fun,” he said.

Event host John Nesby, owner of MorMor Bistro, which sponsored the event along with Kitchen Karousel and Marina Market, said the Sungold’s win was the “biggest upset of the day.”

“Our overall was Best of Show for a reason,” he said. “His was easily the best Sungold I’ve tasted all year.”

Nesby said despite the year’s cooler weather and slow-ripening tomatoes, the crop at the event showcased as impressively as he had hoped.

“This is the most we’ve ever had,” he said. “I know it was a challenge for growers to get tomatoes up to speed.”

Nesby sliced and displayed each tomato for a panel of five judges, which included professional and hobby tomato connoisseurs alike. Each was able to then taste a sampling of the entry, and rate its taste, appearance and texture.

“It was stressful,” admitted judge Rob Gelder. “There’s just so many subtleties. Most of us run to the store, grab one and don’t think about what it is.”

Gelder said each tomato had its own character, and few needed a second visit from the panel.

“It was tough,” he said. “Each tomato had it’s own distinctness to it.”

Judges also awarded prizes to winners in each of three categories. Loushe’s Sungold was named top pick in the cherry/pear category, Ann Pyles of Smoke Tree Farms was named first pick for her San Marzano in the canning/cooking category, and Len Hitchman took both first and second place for his entries in the salad/slicing category — a group that had 18 competitors.

“Competition is stiff,” said market manager Jackie Aitchison. “This is a pretty serious panel this year.”

Aitchison said the increased number of entries was an upside of the year’s event, as she’d made it her personal goal to increase participation.

“It brings folks in,” she said of the contest. “It also gives people a chance to taste all the different varieties of tomatoes that are available. It helps expand people’s horizons to the wonderful world of tomatoes.”

The Tomato Taste Off added a tomato pasta sauce contest to its event roster this year. Nesby praised winner Juliet Rowe-Hornbaker’s recipe.

“Though all the entries were delicious in their own right, we felt that Juliet’s recipe was just too good to pass up,” he said. “We loved the classic combinations that come together to make the tomatoes sing.”

Rowe-Hornbaker’s sauce will be featured on the MorMor Bistro menu the weekend of Sept. 14-16.

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