Creole tomatoes star at fest

Photo provided by Red Stick Farmers Market
Photo provided by Red Stick Farmers Market

FRESH QUARTER

What makes a Creole tomato taste so good?

That question, like the delicious tomato itself, is on the tip of everyone’s tongue as the French Market gears up for this weekend’s annual Creole Tomato Festival.

The answer is simple: It’s all in the soil.

“It’s not about the tree that you put in the ground; it is about the ground that you put the tree in,” said George Lafargue, owner of George’s Produce, whose family has been involved in the Creole Tomato Festival since it began 27 years ago.

The vast majority of grocery-store tomatoes are picked before they are fully ripe and spend days or weeks in transit from places like the West Coast, Mexico and Central America.

Chris Montero, chef and general manager of Ralph Brennan’s Café B and Café NOMA, who will be doing a cooking demonstration at the festival, said local produce has typically developed all of its flavors because it is grown nearby within this region and delivered within a day or so.

“Creole tomatoes are much like an heirloom tomato; they have not been crossbred for their durability. They are a more delicate tomato,” Montero said. “The temperatures that Creole tomatoes thrive in are higher than the vast majority of tomatoes, such as California, which has a much milder climate.”

Such a flavorful tomato, unique to the area, is well worth celebrating.

“The festival was started to generate business for people of New Orleans in the summer months when tourism was low. The director of the French Market at the time had a discussion with the vendors, and back then 99 percent of the market was all produce,” Lafargue said. “They came up with the idea of a tomato festival. Creole tomatoes were very popular.”

Now in its 27th year, the French Market Creole Tomato Festival is a two-day event jam-packed with hourly Creole tomato cooking demonstrations by leading New Orleans chefs, Creole tomato-eating contests, live music, a kids’ zone with hands-on activities, and of course, lots and lots of Creole tomatoes to sample and buy.

Taste buds will get a workout with 10 food booths, 10 farmers’ markets eateries and neighboring restaurants and cafés, all of which are highlighting Creole tomato dishes.

Pastel de Tomate Creole will highlight a Creole tomato pie by Carnaval Brazilian Street Food, LLC; Creole tomato cupcakes will be offered by The Cupcake Fairies; Creole tomatoes with stuffed crabmeat will lure diners to George’s Produce; and fried alligator with Creole tomato cream sauce tops the specials at Oceana Grill, to name a few.

For the novice cooks out there, Montero’s advice is simple.

“Whenever you have a seasonal product, typically to capture what is great about it you want to minimize the long cooking process ... you want lighter, simpler dishes that really accent the quality of the tomato,” Montero said.

“And keep it simple when dealing with a premium product. You want that product to come through and really shine.”

The 27th annual Creole Tomato Festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in the French Market area.

Customers who purchase $30 of items at any French market district retail stores during the festival will receive a complimentary box of Creole tomatoes, while supplies last.

For more information on the festival, visit http://www.frenchmarket.org/event/annual-creole-tomato-festival/