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Deserter’s Bazaar Tbilisi tomatoes

This is a piece that celebrates the odd, the misshapen and the sometimes grotesque – in other words, what to look for to find a really tasty tomato.

Just to be clear, we are talking about tomatoes from Sakartvelo here.

Sakartvelo? You might know it better as Georgia, but Sakartvelo – literally, the dwelling place of the Kartvelian, or Georgian, people – is what natives call their country. And some Georgians say Sakartvelo should be the official name for everyone else too, to avoid confusion with a certain U.S. state that wasn’t even a colonialist’s dream when Georgia the country was already 1,200 years old, but which now irritatingly hogs all the Google limelight.

The trouble of course is that no one outside Georgia can pronounce “Sakartvelo,” so a lot of Georgian news and weather always seems to be happening in Atlanta.

We need to know which Georgia we’re talking about because the truth is that until you’ve tasted the tomatoes from this country, you haven’t really tasted tomatoes.

The best of them don’t look like any one else’s tomatoes either. Rather they resemble the aftermath of a shotgun marriage between a cabbage and a tomato, spattered with warts and scars. Stacked next to the more regular tomato shapes that have become standard around the world, you can’t be sure they’re even in the same family. Often big enough to fill two hands, they wouldn’t make it to a supermarket-sorting depot in the West, let alone the store shelves.

But come down to Nona’s stall in that honey pot for food traditionalists in Tbilisi, the Deserter’s Bazaar, and all tomato life is there. I counted seven different kinds for sale recently, including several stacks of the more conventional variety, as well as two kinds of plum tomato – all grown in Georgia.

“The tastiest?” I asked her. She reached to a tray behind and carefully picked up a beast of a tomato with two fleshy ears spiking out from its portly pink bulges. And it’s “look, don’t touch” unless and until we buy. Because not only is it ugly, this tomato can barely hold itself together. Unlike so many bulletproof American or European varieties, bred from years of laboratory experiments, the skins of these Georgian tomatoes are so delicate that one push of the finger is sometimes enough to rupture them and send a stream of juice all over your hands. And that’s another reason why you have to come here to try them – they don’t travel well!

But they taste so good they are almost addictive. The high never lasts though – and that is a good thing. As with most other locally grown fruit and vegetables, Georgian tomatoes have a season – from summer to early fall.

“I’m going to miss this,” said a friend recently, shaking his head meaningfully as we had dinner at his house. He laughed when I asked where he’s going. “No – the tomatoes. The season’s almost over.”

This article was originally published on September 26, 2016.

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