Every August in the tiny Spanish town of Buñol, thousands of people gather for the festival of La Tomatina, where they proceed to throw around 150,000 tomatoes at each other.
Imagine the mess, but more importantly, imagine the waste.
I love the sun-touched taste of a ripe tomato. Roma, cherry, heirloom––I never met a tomato I didn’t like. But even I was a little skeptical about attending “Tomato Taste” at Pursell Farms, where all four meal courses featured the humble tomato in some form or fashion, even down to the dessert.
While Olympians prepare for their events through repetitive training, I took the opposite approach. I didn’t eat a tomato all week.
I arrived at Hamilton Place at Pursell Farms just as the sun began its descent, drenching the simple white buildings, pond, and surrounding hazy hills in its warm August glow. Fellow tomato-tasters mingled about but needed no urging when the moment came––the great “Tomato Taste” had begun.
We took our seats at the round tables under the sweeping white arched beams and wrought-iron chandeliers of the spacious hall. It’s not often you see a centerpiece featuring the tomato, yet, there they were, artfully stacked in little cartons, with even a few rolling blissfully about on the white tablecloths. Shining red tomatoes were hand-painted on each menu, tempting you before you’d even had your first taste.
Who better to start the evening off than the “Tomato King” himself: Chef Joe Truex, the 2009 winner of the “Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival” and the executive chef of Pursell Farms. After a brief introduction, he passed the mic to Gia Bivens from International Wines to overview the wine pairings carefully chosen to enhance each course.
As Mitch Emmons softly strummed his guitar and sang classic tunes like “Stand by Me,” the first course arrived: an heirloom tomato stack topped with cascading field peas garnished with poached pink Gulf shrimp, crisp fried okra, savory applewood bacon, drizzled with a smoked oyster sauce.
Not even a field pea remained by the time I finished it. As tasty as that first course was, the second course alone was worth the trip.
I never thought I would wax poetic about a simple summer tomato pie, yet here we are.
The secret ingredient was Duke’s mayo layered onto a parmesan cheese crust, sharpening the freshness of the rich red and yellow tomatoes. Black olive tapenade, melding with strokes of olive oil, swirled together like Van Gogh was painting up the plates in the kitchen.
“We should eat to live, not live to eat,” I reminded myself while the other half of me was hatching a plan to sneak into the kitchen to see if they had more. Thankfully the next course arrived before I could put my tomato pie heist into action.
Paired with a tender petit filet mignon was the biggest tomato presentation of the night––a whole half of an heirloom baked and topped with melted gorgonzola. Maybe it was the tomato or Chef Truex flexing his “Tomato King” skills, but it was the juiciest tomato I’ve ever tasted.
Only one course remained.
The dessert was a tomato sorbet topped with torn basil. It was cold, refreshing, and the most untraditional dessert I’ve ever tasted, a V8 snow cone of sorts. Those with a sweet tooth might have been disappointed, but for an event called “Tomato Taste,” it was the perfect end.
You would think we would all be “tomatoed out” by this point, but I left craving more. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.
I passed a man as I was leaving, his pockets overflowing with tomatoes he’d gathered from his table centerpiece. Had we been in Buñol, Spain, I might have been a little worried on the walk back to the car, but I knew exactly what he meant when he grinned and said, “Can’t let these go to waste.”