Le moment des tomates. And never have they been so pulpily good, so marvelously meaty, so filled with juices that produce an instant, sweet, profound sauce for whatever they touch.

Tomatoes have been surprising this year. They came on the scene earlier and more filled with flavor than usual, since we had uncommonly hot July temperatures that rushed them to ripeness. We had hardly gotten used to early summer’s tiny, tender peas in the pod when gigantic coeur de boeuf (beef heart) tomatoes were overflowing crates at the farmers’ market. Summer lingers late in Normandy, and tomatoes will be with us through September, possibly into mid-October.

My favorite farmer at the Louviers market, Baptiste Bourdon, is the prince of the tomato. He goes above and beyond the Norman line of duty and expectation by offering uncommon varieties, the most notable being the fat, juicy, flavorful, gorgeous, fragile coeur de boeuf. You’ve met Baptiste—he’s the young farmer featured in my book On Rue Tatin who used to play bass guitar in a rock band, and could be found doing occasional air-guitar riffs during slow moments at his stall. He no longer has time for the band, so busy is he figuring out the soil and the seasons, the varieties and the winds so that he can keep up with his increasingly loyal clientele. His jollity remains, however, as does the goodness of his produce. And his tomatoes. Oh, his tomatoes…

I visited Baptiste at his farm, in search of his tomato secret. After all, we live in Normandy, a region noted for its lush green landscape, deep and rich cream and tart flavorful apples, all things made better with abundant precipitation. How is it, I’ve always wondered, that his tomatoes—which need heat and sun—always arrive early in the season, and so full of flavor?

He farms in an area that I refer to as the fertile crescent of Haute Normandie (upper Normandy), the Plaine de Neubourg. It is noted for its rich dark soil, fertilized for centuries by small, black and white vaches normandes, or Norman cows, and its excellent farming practices involving compost, crop rotation and nitrogen-producing cover crops. As winter fades, huge piles of compost materialize on the Plaine de Neubourg, as do fields of fava beans—nitrogen-fixers— and a varying patchwork of wheat, oats, soybeans, corn and flax.

Baptiste farms with his uncle on about six acres of the Plaine de Neubourg tucked behind a little village called Surtauville. To get fields high with flax and corn this year, then turned off onto a dirt “driveway” between two stone buildings. I bumped along into a clearing with a barn set off to one side. A series of brand, spanking new greenhouses formed a backdrop to tidy rows of various crops— beans, lettuces, spinach, carrots, leeks…but no tomatoes.

Baptiste was on his cell phone, taking an order from his grandmother, who hosts him for lunch at her nearby home at least once a week. “Oui, oui, OK, deux salades, des tomates, non, non, il n’y a pas encore d’haricots verts,” I heard him say as I walked up. (Yes, OK, two heads of lettuce, some tomatoes, and no, I don’t have green beans yet.) How wonderful it must be to simply call a grandson for vegetables and get the best the area has to offer!

Baptiste took me right into the first greenhouse, where I discovered his tomato secret. Inside, where the temperature was many degrees warmer, the atmosphere was full of charged energy. The tomato plants were strung more than six feet high, their sturdy branches laden with tomatoes of every hue. This technique allows for air to move around the plants, encouraging fruit growth and discouraging the scourge of the tomato kingdom, mildew.

Most of the tomatoes in this greenhouse were still green. “I plant tomatoes at different times so I’m sure to have plenty for the entire season,” says. Baptiste. “This is one of the later greenhouses.”

He’s planted four or five tomato varieties, from striped green zebras to thin-skinned coeurs de boeuf. He’s also got pigeon heart and regular round cherry tomatoes, and yellow tomatoes he’s tried this year—which, he agrees, are more about color than flavor. “I’ll sell them all,” he says. “But the yellow ones won’t be back next year.”

Baptiste has discovered that the road to success, in an area where market gardeners and farmers tend to produce the same things each year, is to offer variety. Not too much variety, though—his clients like familiarity, and he understands that everything takes time. One new tomato variety, offered at perfect ripeness well before anyone else has one to sell, is enough for a year. He watches. If reception is good, that variety becomes one of his regular offerings, creating anticipation among his clients. His four shiny greenhouses, each worth the price of a new car, are his best allies.

Baptiste walks up to a tomato plant and searches among the leaves, releasing the familiar, pungent aroma of a newly picked tomato. Among the blossoms he finds a nascent tomato, then a larger one and a larger one, taking the time at each discovery to explain the growth pattern. He pushes away a big, leafy branch near the ground to reveal a box filled with bees. “I put bees in here to pollinate. They’re the best friends I have,” he says, giving the box a little pat.

We go outside and into the field, where he shows me what’s on the menu for late summer and fall. My mouth starts watering as I imagine green beans tossed in garlic and walnut oil, braised Brussels sprouts buried in herbs, the first leeks sweated in butter… But I’m here for tomatoes, and in we walk to another greenhouse. Aha! This is where the mother lode of beef heart tomatoes grows. There they are, most of them larger than Baptiste’s fist. Many are ripe and he picks one, which we munch on, like an apple. It is indescribable to be doing so, wrapped in the warmth of the greenhouse, surrounded by the low humming of bees and the smell of the vines. Would this, could this be heaven?

Baptiste picks a kilo—2.2 pounds—of tomatoes. In this case, that is three. He carries them carefully. They’re perfectly ripe and fragile, their cellular structure such that just the littlest bit of pressure makes a bruise. I’m going to buy them from him, rush them home and turn them into a warm summer salad. Those three won’t last more than a day or two. My daughter, my friends, my neighbors— we’re all hooked on Baptiste’s coeurs de boeuf.


Beef Heart Tomato Salad
If you can’t get beef heart tomatoes, use the best tomatoes you
can find.
1/4 cup walnuts
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 shallot, peeled
Fine sea salt
1 cup basil leaves
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds tomatoes, cored
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Put the walnuts, garlic, shallot and a large pinch salt in a
blender, small food processor or mortar with a pestle. Process
or grind until they become a chunky purée. Add the basil and
continue until the leaves are coarsely chopped or crushed—you
don’t want a fine purée. Slowly add the oil until it is mixed with
the other ingredients. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt and
some pepper if you like.
2. Cut the tomatoes into thin wedges and either arrange them on
a shallow platter or put them in a shallow bowl. Pour the basil
and nut mixture over them and toss gently. Garnish with basil
sprigs, and let sit for 10 to 15 minutes to allow the juices of the
tomatoes to emerge. Serve at room temperature with plenty of
bread for soaking up the juices.
4 to 6 servings

Susan Herrmann Loomis teaches cooking classes in Normandy and Paris. The latest of her ten books, Nuts in the Kitchen, has just been published by HarperCollins. Visit her website.

Find Susan’s books in the France Today bookstore.

Originally published in the September 2010 issue of France Today.

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