Sunshine Farm Tomato Festival and Sunshine Farms recipe for pickeld cherry tomatoes
It’s not every day that I am invited to an organic tomato farm so when the opportunity presented itself to purchase tickets, I immediately did. This year Sunshine Farms hosted their first Tomato Festival on their farm, offering space to 50 guests of which I was lucky to be one. Both Val of More Than Burnt Toast and I, who never miss a good culinary opportunity, packed our cameras and hats and set out to spend a few hours of culinary indulgence in all things tomato. For Val, who says that if she had a last meal it would have to include tomatoes, and for me who prefers to eat vegetarian and loves all good fresh produce without exception, this promised to be a wonderful adventure. All too often I attend events that are so meat centered that I wonder if they know that we grow vegetables in the Okanagan.
Sunshine Farm, situated in South East Kelowna, stretches over rolling gardens, meadows, mowlands and ponds. Run by Jon and Sher Alcock and their family, the farm is an intimate, hands-on operation that takes pride in quality and preservation and specializes in heritage rare and organic seeds from which they grow their produce. The Alcocks bought the farm in 1987. “We wanted to raise our children on the farm” says Jon Alcock, “I have been involved with food production for a long time, having been a fisherman before. I love having control over my food”. And having control over his food he does. We walked with him along the vegetable patches as he picked slender carrots of every colour, destined to join their farm grown potatoes at dinner tonight, roasted to perfection in their outdoor wood burning pizza oven. Food doesn’t come any fresher or more pure than that.
Upon arrival we were handed a glass, a cloth napkin and a plate and invited to fill them with the foods and drinks prepared by the family and set about the property. We first stopped at the large and tantalizing display of some 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes both showcased whole and cut up for us to taste. Val must have thought she died and went to heaven after having her last meal with all these tomatoes and I was barely keeping calm. I tend to get excited around veggies. To each their own:).
We picked a table for two in the shade but close to the tomato display (wild horses couldn’t drag us more than a few feet away from that beauty) and after taking pictures of all the tomatoes on display and tasting some, we went about to try the food and drinks. We sipped fresh chilled sparkling tomato water on ice and later fresh iced lemon water as we munched on their beautiful all tomato based finger foods.
Cheese and tomato crostini
Pickled cherry tomatoes
Fiery red chilled gazpacho
Summer blond gazpacho
Tomatoes, basil and boconcini on skewers
Multi coloured tomato salad with fresh mozzarella and basil
Brie and tomato jam crostini
and, for dessert:
Tomato spice cake
Tomato ice cream in mini ice cream cone
and, the piece de resistance
Chocolate dipped grape tomatoes
The fiery red gazpacho was made with fire roasted multi coloured tomatoes, red and orange peppers, smoked paprika, red wine vinegar and tomato salsa. It had just the right amount of spice and was served in little shot glasses. The other gazpacho, the blond one, had the delicate flavours of white, yellow and orange fleshed tomatoes, sweet cucumber, white balsamic and chive oil. If you are an opera lover it was to the fiery red gazpacho what Donna Elvira (from Don Giovanni) is to Carmen. Two strong women of very different styles.
As the sun shifted position so did we and eventually moved our table a few feet away and set it in the shade under the branches of the beautiful tree growing in the yard. We sat next to the Cowboy Ted Scott who played guitar, sang country music and entertained us throughout the afternoon. Ted is a singer, songwriter, entertainer, professional cowboy and horseman hailing from Salt springs Island. No one was thinking of leaving as long as Ted was singing, that was clear. It was just the right kind of music and sound for this event.
After nibbling on appetizers for a while, drinking sparkling tomato water and tasting the fresh tomatoes, time came for the pizza event. The farm has a gorgeous custom built huge pizza oven dominating its front yard. Oh what would I give for an oven like that. Jon started the wood fire early so by now the oven was at about 800 degrees. The wood was around the parameter of the oven, leaving the stone in the middle hot and ready to puff up the dough. Soon Sher Alcock was coming from her kitchen with these gorgeous pizzas ready to be put into the hot oven. Sher made the pizzas herself and of course the dough as well. She said that it was sourdough made with a starter with ambient yeast from the farm. We could hardly wait to taste and thankfully we didn’t have to wait long. As Sher was walking back and forth from her kitchen with these beautiful pizzas Jon was sliding them expertly with the filck of the wrist into the 800 degrees oven where they baked in an instant right before our eyes. The pizzas were topped with what else, Sunshine Farm tomatoes and cheese. Now that’s a pizza, thin, crispy crust and just the right amount of topping, oh, just thinking about it makes me want to run back there for more. We stood around sampling one piece, and another, and another, I won’t disclose how many. Just take guess.
Eventually we got through the tasting, photographing and visiting and it was time for some education. Jon gathered us around the display of tomatoes and spoke briefly about each, telling us some of the history of how he came into possessing some of these heritage seeds. As an aside, what we call heirloom tomatoes used to be called heritage seeds tomatoes. Apparently it was the famous (or infamous) Martha Stewart who started calling them heirloom and the name stuck. I like “heirloom”, it has an aura of a treasured possession to it. Jon calls them heritage seeds, which is more authentic. They grow over a hundred varieties of heritage/heirloom seed tomatoes and had more than 20 on display and available for tasting at the event.
Here are some of them:
Azoychka tomatoes – medium size yellow-orange beefsteak Russian Heirloom
Violet Jasper tomatoes – purple red with green stripes
Maglia Rosa tomato – pink with yellowish striping picked just as the fruit turns pink. Good for dipping in chocolate.
Michael Polan tomato – unique striped green plum shaped tomato, a cross with the old green zebra, named for the author Michael Polan (“In Defence of Food”)
Fargo Yellow Pear Tomato – developed in Fargo, North Dakota in 1932, larger than baby yellow pear but just as sweet
Marmande tomatoes – round, red and delicious
Orange banana tomatoes – long, orange and amazingly sweet
Snow White tomato – sweet, ivory coloured cherry tomato
Speckled Roman tomato – long red with yellow stripes, meaty, good for sauces, one of my favourite tomatoes
Creamy sausage tomato – creamy white and sausage shaped sweet variety
Baby Red Pear – rare traditional Oaxacan variety, pear shaped, crisp and sweet, yellow and red colours
Black Russian tomato – black on the outside, dark greenish inside, rich, deep flavour, became available after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Tangello Tomato – found at a roadside vendor in Mexico, deep orange colour, sweet citrus flavour, firm flesh
White Oxheart tomato– smallish. meaty and sweet, few seeds, extremely rare
Oaxacan tomato – found in Abastos market in Oaxaca, sweet, scalloped edges, red and very pretty
White beauty tomato– creamy white inside and out, sweet, mild and fruity
Chocolate pear – pear shape, light red, flavourful
Campbell tomato – developed by yes, the Campbell soup people in the 50’s, before you were born. Round, red and delicious.
Banana legs – yellow, long and meaty variety
Indigo rose – dark black on the outside, red inside, one of my favourites, juicy, sweet and tangy.
There were more but these remained in my notes. In case you are wondering, yes, they grow San Marzano but they are not ready yet and should be out in a couple of weeks. Put your order in with Sunshine Farms to make some perfect tomato sauce with this Italian variety.
“Almost every tomato you see here was grown by preceding generations” says Alcock, “some records date back to mid 1800’s. A lot of them are grown by Amish peple in the US.” One of Jon’s favourites is the white Oxheart tomato. He recounts having to make dinner for himself while Sher was away, and told us how he picked a few of the ripe white tomatoes together with fresh fennel seeds from the vegetable patch and wild Italian arugula growing in the vicinity. He sliced the tomatoes, mixed them with the arugula, sprinkled with the (crushed) fennel seeds and added a drizzle of olive oil and a splash of cider vinegar. It turned into a beautiful, memorable summer salad he enjoyed. “It was perfect with the crushed fennel seeds” say Jon. Got to try it.
The Speckled Roma tomatoes were given to him by a woman named Mary (Keeg?) who was growing them in Northen California where she was selling the tomatoes to culinary notables such as Alice Waters of the famed Chez Panisse in Berkley. Mary came to the market where Jon was selling his tomatoes and picked up the Speckled Roma and they engaged in conversation about her connection to growing tomatoes. Eventually Mary came to a seed swap that Jon and Sher organized and gave him a collection of some 15 heritage seed variety telling him she can no longer grow them and would like to gift them to him.
After the presentation we went with Jon for a walkabout on the farm. We passed a lone persimmon tree and heritage apricots and apple trees before reaching the vegetables patches. Tall red amaranth was growing spontaneously among the vegetables. There were tomatoes, dill, arugula, broccoli, salsify, jerusalem artichokes, beets, (they seed the beets in the greenhouse and plant them in succession so they don’t grow too big). We walked over to the carrot patch where they grow rainbow carrots in different colours, from orange to white to purple and the hues in between. On the way we passed Anna’s cabin at the edge of the property. Anna works on the farm and lives in the charming little cabin, complete with her own vegetable garden and a hammock hanging between two trees.
Everything felt organic and natural. “Bio diversity is really important on an organic farm” says Jon as we pass a pond on the farm, “we try to encourage it as much as possible. We put fish in the pond but wait until after the frogs come out so the fish don’t eat the tadpole eggs. We keep goldfish in the barrels and they are transferred from the barrels to the pond.”
When the snow melts down from the mountains in the spring they get an intermittent stream on the property. It created a pond that attracts local wildlife. Besides the deer and racoons some 17 varieties of birds frequent the area, coming here to feed or nest: yellow headed blackbird, wood ducks, wilson’s snipes among them. They created a nice little natural reserve in the middle of the farm, containing willows and birch trees, cattails and bullrushes, true to their biodiversity philosophy.
We walked back to the main area passing the chicken pasture that they plan to expand next year. Each chicken apparently has a name but we weren’t introduced so I can’t tell you the names. When we returned Jon did a seed preserving session and then we continued to munch, drink and enjoyed (quite) a few of the remaining chocolate covered tomatoes. These were delicious by the way, not unlike chocolate covered strawberries, sweet and tangy. They worked with Sandrine, the French pastry chef of Sandrine French Pastry and Chocolate shop to create these delicious morsels. Chocolate and tomatoes is not such an odd combination, after all tomato is a fruit.
Val and I were very grateful to be the recipients of a jar of pickled cherry tomatoes each, home made in their kitchen by Sher Alcock. They were delicious, sweet and tangy, can be served on their own as an appetizer or alongside other foods. Not only did she give us a jar but she also sent me the recipe the next day, saying that recipes, like seeds, should always be shared. I couldn’t say it better myself.
We stayed until the end, sitting in the shade of the tree listening to Ted playing his guitar, who was eventually joined by some of the Alcock musicians. We left happy, full and informed, ready to see them again at the farmers market in Kelowna on Saturday. Can’t wait.
Sher Alcock’s Pickled Tomatoes (Sunshine Farm, Kelowna):
Have enough tomatoes to fill 4 sterilized pint canning jars. Use small crisp tomatoes. The ‘grape’ varieties are really good.
Wash the tomatoes and remove the stems, but do not peel.
Poke about four holes in each one (Sher runs a skewer all the way through 2 or 3 times).
In a small pot place:
1.5 cups of apple cider vinegar
1.5 cups water
2 Tablespoons of salt.
2 Tablespoons of sugar.
4-8 Garlic cloves – ( I used 8)
Pinch of coriander
Bring to a boil and boil all together for 3 or 4 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
It is very important to let the brine cool. If it is too hot when you add it to the tomatoes, they will start to peel, and be mushy.
Pour the cooled brine onto the tomatoes and screw on the lid.
These are fresh pickles, do not need any cooking or processing. Give them at least 24 hours to soak up the brine.
Keep refrigerated. Sher says her recipe says they will last several months but heirs will be eaten long before that. Having tasted them, I can see why.
“Really easy, and very easy to make in larger batches” says Sher.
Thank you Sher for sharing the recipe.