Breaker stage | Eating and drinking | Style weekly
Barbara Hollingsworth squeaks “Do you see that?”
An early girl tomato that changes from waxy green to light blush to cherry red before our eyes peers through a sea of ââgreen tendrils.
“In a week we’ll be swimming in tomatoes,” says David Hunsaker.
Hunsaker and Hollingsworth have been running a small family farm in Hannover County’s Village Garden for a decade.
Over the next six weeks, Village Garden tomato whisperers and Barboursville sommelier Jason Tesauro will host a Supper Summer Somm series with nine restaurants in central Virginia. The series begins with a sold out Wednesday June 23rd dinner at the Common House and ends with a grand finale at the farm on August 9th.
The chefs create their own multi-course menus paired with Barboursville Vino, using Village Garden heirloom varieties such as Early Girl, Mikado, Piennolo and Gold Nugget.
The heirlooms each have their own preferences and peccadillos – more than 150 varieties grow on this fertile property, all of which are diligently tended by Hunsaker and Hollingsworth.
The piennolos grow in clusters like large grapes, while the gold nugget cherry tomatoes, often ripening early, hang low and heavy on the ground. âYou can’t support this tomato,â complains Hollingsworth. Indigo cherries are streaked with green and lavender, and the oxheart tomato, still a vibrant emerald, truly resembles a human heart.
These unique, mercury beauties are of course every cook’s dream. But growing them is not an easy task.
“Heirloom vegetables are difficult because they are not disease-resistant,” says Hunsaker. “They’ll get sick in no time … and it’s even harder when you’re growing huge numbers of them.”
Village Farm does everything by hand and works mainly in the cooler morning and evening hours to avoid the brutal afternoon sun. The couple do not use pesticides, meaning long hours are spent pulling weeds and spraying dilute soapy water on tomato plants when aphids infest.
Hunsaker uses oyster compost and bone and blood meal to fertilize its tomatoes, and the two occasionally adapt for an evening pest hunt by shining a black light on at dusk to catch bioluminescent hornworms. They fed the worms to their duck family.
While the property in Hanover is 10 hectares, only 1 is suitable for cultivation. The rest is a protected âbird paradiseâ, says Hunsaker.
However, the couple makes good use of this hectare. They’re specialized and known for their heirloom tomatoes and chilies, yes, but the two also grow almost any herb under the sun, plus pear trees, sparkling strawberries, horseradish, multiple iterations of citrus, grapes, asparagus, and ichiban eggplant – the list goes on further on.
“Barbara has certain things that she has an affinity for. I spend a lot of time with the tomatoes and chillies and try the rest,” says Hunsaker.
Hunsaker’s devotion to the almighty tomato goes well beyond physically plowing weeds and tucking tender tomato tops in twine. He’s also constantly researching.
“In the first year we grew 53 varieties and thought that was a lot,” says Hunsaker with a laugh. âEvery year we discover something new.â That year he discovered the mikado, a tomato named after a popular piece by Gilbert and Sullivan from the late 19th century. “The brandywine tomato came out right after that and usurped the mikado’s popularity,” he says.
As Hunsaker and Hollingsworth walk through the rows of tomatoes on a hot afternoon in mid-June, Hollingsworth continues to glow, pointing to some of the first tomatoes of the season. “We select them directly in the so-called breaker phase,” says Hunsaker.
This breaker phase is the short time in which the pink of the plant becomes noticeable. âIf you pick it when it’s green, really green, it won’t ripen. You want to pick it a few days earlier in the breakdown phase, âsays Hunsaker. âIf you wait until they are too ripe, every animal in the forest does what you do, but at night. You can’t wait to get it tomorrow. “
Hunsaker began sharing his passion for tomatoes with chefs in Richmond 10 years ago when the farm-to-table movement really took off. âWe have only just started going to the chefs, we didn’t know 90%,â says Hunsaker.
“After the farmers market on Saturday my truck was full of these beautiful tomatoes in every shape, size and color, and we went to restaurants in the afternoons when the cooks were making preparations but weren’t too busy and we just knocked on the door,” he explains. “I’ve never met a cook who wasn’t so enthusiastic about tomatoes.”
This includes Lemaire chef Patrick Willis, who will use heirlooms for the already sold out four-course menu on June 30 at the Village Garden restaurant. “We’ve been using David’s tomatoes for years,” says Willis. “Having worked with Dave for so long, I know his varieties, so I designed a few courses specifically for specific tomatoes.”
For example, Lemaire’s first course will feature Village Garden cherry tomatoes with tortellini, a salad with shaved fennel, fresh chevre and a traditional tomato broth.
âThey have this depth of color and flavor and go well with many summer herbs and other vegetables,â says Willis. “The tomatoes really speak for themselves.”
Supper Summer Somm Series (without dinner that has already been sold out)
Midlothian Chef’s Kitchen
Sunday, July 11th, 6-8pm
$ 95 (six courses)
Butcher Bar & Butcher Shop
Wednesday, July 14th, 6:30 p.m.
$ 125 (five courses, including tip)
Wednesday, July 21, 6 p.m.
$ 75 (four courses, bubbly at the beginning)
Guests are asked to purchase gift cards for the event in lieu of tickets. Contact email@example.com to purchase a gift card and be added to the list.
Friday 23rd July
Price and ticket link not available at the time of publication.
Monday, July 26th, dinner as normal service from 5 p.m.
Price to be set, seven courses
Make a reservation by calling the restaurant at 804-269-3689
Lobby bar, Quirk Hotel Charlottesville
Wednesday, August 4th, 6 pm-9pm
$ 110 (six courses, includes tip and a cocktail)