Tops in tomato taste

At the 24th Massachusetts Tomato Festival, farmers brought their best to see which were tops in flavor, color, and appeal.

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    THIS ONE'S A '10': Judges of the tomato contest include chefs, food writers, cookbook authors, grocers, and gardening experts.
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For me, the highlight of August every year is being one of the judges in the state's annual tomato contest. Ah, the appeal of several hundred tomatoes spread out on tables beneath a tent – all waiting to be savored. I can't imagine anything more delightful or more characteristic of summer.

This contest is strictly for farmers, and they bring their best from all corners of the state. Once they arrive at Boston's City Hall Plaza, the tomatoes are placed on plates and arranged by category -- field, cherry, heirloom, and weight.

This is a busy part of the city and there's a farmers' market next door – so a crowd of onlookers soon gathers to watch what's going on. It's fun to overhear what they're saying; everyone loves tomatoes.

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Judges -- many of whom, like me, return year after year -- are chefs, food writers, cookbook authors, grocers, and gardening experts. We, too, eye this year's entries as they're set out.

Are there as many as last year? Will the taste be diminished, we wonder, because of the torrents of rain we've had?

We're handed a clipboard, pencil, and judging sheet while the rules are explained: We award 1 to 10 points for flavor -- the most important quality of a tomato. Then we give 1 to 5 points for firmness, exterior color, and shape.

Each table has a big bottle of water and a cup of saltine crackers on it, should the judges want to cleanse their palates between bites. But I rarely see anyone use the crackers.

For some reason -- maybe the small size of the pieces cut for us, maybe that tomatoes don't have an overwhelmingly strong flavor that lingers in the mouth -- it doesn't seem necessary.

But some judges do bring a small container of salt; this year, someone had sea salt. I prefer my tomatoes just as they come from the vine.

Tasting 25 to 50 tomatoes at the peak of perfection is heavenly. A co-worker back at my office asked if you spit them out afterward. No way! I savored each one and went back for seconds on some entires that I couldn't quite make up my mind about.

I was helping judge cherry tomatoes, where the burst of flavor in your mouth is characteristic, so in some cases I wanted to eat the whole tomato instead of smaller pieces.

I've written about the tomato contest before, but never get tired of participating. I'm secretly pleased when I see signs start to show up at the farmers' market the week after: award-winning tomatoes, first place winner.

This contest does matter to the farmers. And that makes me feel good.

As a gardener, I also pore over the lists of winners when they're e-mailed to me (the judges aren't given variety names or the identity of entrants, of course). That gives me some clues of which tomatoes I might want to try next spring.

I'm expecting to receive the list from yesterday's 24th annual contest any moment now and will post it as soon as it arrives.

LATER: You'll find it here.

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