Monday, September 7, 2009

I Say Tomato...

...but all these folks were saying "tomate." Ah, well, it's their country, after all.

And their festival, as well: the third annual Festival de la Tomate in Clapiers, a town just outside of Montpellier (and still part of its Agglomeration) which turned its municipal park over to a bunch of folks celebrating the fruit. There didn't seem to be any tomato farms in the vicinity, but no matter; the French enjoy celebrating food, and so a number of farmers loaded up their wares and set up, as well as a number of fancy-food suppliers and a bunch of folks with goods and services aimed at home gardeners.

I'd found out about this through Eric Pedebas, the "tomatologist" I mentioned recently, when I saw him at the Tuesday market. He wasn't there on Saturday, no doubt because he was getting ready to be, literally, the center of attention at the festival. He set up a table with examples of at least 100 varieties of tomatoes, and worked the crowd, explaining this and that, as he walked up and down what a friend of his who was helping called the "Boulevard of Tomatoes."

That's Eric himself in the khaki pants, knife in his right hand ready to cut a tomato open to show its mysteries. I have never seen so many different kinds of tomatoes in one place, and I suspect that if some method of preserving varieties which ripen earlier or later than this very moment could be devised, he could easily have had a table twice as long. The fruit comes in every imaginable shape.

Not to mention color and size and fanciful name:

Although the real monster tomatoes were mostly over at the farmers' for-sale stands.

And even these in the foreground of this shot aren't as big as some I've seen, which require two hands to pick up. I have the feeling these behemoths are still in the field and will show up in the next couple of weeks.

Elsewhere, there was a guy selling peppers, who seemed not to know a lot about the varieties he had. Although, to be fair, there's nothing like the chile culture of the U.S. in these parts, and he was pointing out his cayennes as being particularly hot -- which no chile-head in the States would buy. He did, however, have a colorful mixture.

I have to say I'm jealous: the jalapeño on my balcony has only just developed little nubs which I think will turn into flowers and the serrano shows no signs of doing anything of the sort.

There was a guy selling fig-infused balsamic vinegar and basil-infused olive oil from Italy at €20 for about 250ml, which was ridiculous, and another guy from the gorgeous village of Saint-Martin-de-Londres with varietal olive oils from Lucques, Verdale, and Picholine olives at €15 a liter. A great excuse to go back out there some day, and I plan to.

The big event, though, was the tomato tasting, sponsored by Slow Food's local chapter (or convivium, as they call them). Since my taste buds are still alive in the afternoon, I joined this free activity, with four slices of Eric Pedebas' tomatoes to taste. We were given a form to fill out, in which we noted color, odor, texture, taste (with several sub-heads), and persistence of taste in the mouth. In order, we got Carotina, which (unlike the photo in the link) was bright orange, with a strong odor, quite an acid taste, but a fast finish; Cornue des Andes, which I've been using on pizzas, thinking it was a San Marzano, which had the distinctive "horn" shape, very light odor, and a sweet, very light taste with almost no finish; the Green Zebra, one of those remarkable unripe-looking tomatoes with a good odor, crunchy texture and a well-balanced acid-and-herb taste; and a Noire de Crimée, which he was selling in large quantity (sorry, no pic on his website), and was green at the stem, going to a dark red that was almost black, bloody red inside, and an intense, fruity sweetness that lingered in the mouth.

Besides the tasting itself, what really surprised me were the participants: about half of them were over 45 -- no surprise there -- but the other half were under 14, and as deadly serious about what they were doing as the three Slow Food representatives. One fat Maghrebi girl, who was there with her mother, finally had to be told by her to go away and play, because her enthusiasm was distracting everyone. (She's going to grow up to open a restaurant where the food won't be all that good, but there'll be a lot of it, is my guess). But there were a number of boys and girls who talked among themselves, poring over the evaluation forms, and this really impressed me, although my initial surprise, I told myself, wasn't all that warranted because developing this degree of connoisseurship is very likely perceived as being as patriotic as being a good baseball player would be in the States.

Afterwards, I talked to the Slow Food folks, who were very friendly and happy to see a foreigner with so much interest in what they were doing. I'll have to see what the coming weeks bring in terms of finances (it costs to join, and, of course, to attend meals) and, just as important, the return of my sense of smell and taste, which is reliably fading out around 8:30 every night, although not quite as completely as before.

Afterwards, Marie, who had driven (and much thanks) and her friend Genviève and I explored downtown Clapiers, which has a church with a 14th century bit (which bit I couldn't tell) and, somewhere, a Roman house, but not much else, unless you count the confection, which I forgot to note the name of, which translates as "rabbit shit." Genviève noted that it's covered in chocolate, which, of course makes anything taste good.

Clapiers is only about 15 minutes' drive from the pickup place by the American Library where Marie got me, but it's not easily gotten to without a car. This is one of the maddening things about living here: you really do need a car if you're going to leave Montpellier, or else you need to go far enough away that you can get there by train. In the distant future, I hope to have figured out a way to get a French drivers license without having to pay €3000 for a training course so that I can use the city's rent-a-car program, but in the meanwhile, I'm just going to have to scour the web to find auto-rental companies with decent day-rates if I want to go out into the deep countryside. Which, based on events like this, I most certainly do.


  1. This is a very interesting compte-rendu, Ed. I enjoyed reading it. But I really don't think many people were over 45 :-))) (apart from the three of us and Igor and the "teacher"! I know there was an old lady on your right for some time, but... I need to have a look at all the photos I took during the tasting. I was surprised at how many children were interested in the tomato tasting.

  2. Ed,

    Here's a workaround for getting a
    French driver's license. If you don't already have one, get a free driver's license in your next trip to the US. It can be exchanged for a French driver's license. French life is full of escroqueries, not just for the tourist but for everyone. You cant get a license without a certificate from a private driving school and there's your E3000.

    Mike Eisenstadt

  3. Thing is, Mike, not all states can be exchanged one-for-one. My driver's license is from Texas, so forget it. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, is cool.

  4. This info, from, may be useful:

    "I, like most people, always thought that you *had* to go through a driving school in France to get a French license (for those of us who can't trade our old US one in for a French one). It's expensive, usually about €1500, slow, and not particularly fun if you loathe your instructor. But you can actually do it yourself as long as:

    * you have a licensed driver (for at least 3 years) teaching you
    * you pick up a special livret d'apprentissage at the préfecture (they will also tell you which roads you're allowed to practice on)
    * you use a special double-pedalled "student driver" car, which can be rented for about €20/hour (or about €450 for the required 20 hours of practice).

    "For more info visit"

  5. It reminds me of the tomato display at our county fair. Many of the plants came from seeds saved for many years.

  6. I'm happy to see that the table and description contained some varieties I'm familiar with...makes me feel better about my gustatory progress and my farmers' markets out here. When we first moved to California and I had room for a garden, I thought "Well, when I planted two dozen tomatoes in Texas, I got four dozen tomatoes. I'd like four dozen tomatoes." So I planted two dozen various plants and got a giant unmanageable wonderful tomato jungle and ate so many raw that I wore the enamel off my teeth and had to use Sensodyne for three months afterwards.

  7. Beautiful pictures and very interesting Ed.


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