Terrific Tomato: Sunol Farming
Fred Hempel grows magic at his farm, and the Green Bee might be his greatest trick yet.
Green Bee tomatoes on the vine.
Call Fred Hempel the mad scientist of tomatoes. The Sunol farmer—who boasts a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley—quit his day job in the biotech industry more than a decade ago to concentrate on his passion: breeding new and innovative varieties of tomatoes and growing hard-to-find crops that appeal to the Bay Area’s adventurous foodie spirit.
His creations over the years have included the Orange Jazz, a beefsteak tomato with notes of peach, and the Lucky Tiger, a green cherry tomato with yellow stripes. The Green Bee, however, may be his masterpiece.
Seven years in the making—Hempel painstakingly pollinates hybrids the old-fashioned way, using tweezers—this bold green and yellow tomato boasts some truly extraordinary qualities. The product of crossing one cherry tomato with another containing two “rin” genes that help slow the ripening process, the Frankenstein fruit exhibits the brightly sweet flavor of a cherry tomato but with an unusually firm, crunchy texture.
Most impressively, those two rin genes allow the Green Bee to remain perfectly ripe while maintaining peak flavor for several months after having been picked from the vine.
“Softening and some aspects of ripening are blocked, but the sweetness and flavor are not—it just takes a little longer,” says Hempel, who renamed his farm after his new tomato earlier this year. “The end result is something that ripens fully but slowly, with a much longer shelf life.”
With the Green Bee, East Bay chefs can now feature locally grown “in-season” tomatoes on their menu well into the winter. “We actually served them all the way through December,” says Matt Greco, the owner of Pleasanton’s Salt Craft restaurant. “People are so used to eating tomatoes all year-round, even if they taste terrible because they are out of season. But this is a tomato you can serve in the winter that has plenty of character and flavor and really tastes good.”
According to Greco, the Green Bee’s firm texture and crisp flavor give it rare versatility, best highlighted when it’s fresh or cooked quickly, instead of a longer, stewed treatment. For example, Greco swaps Green Bees for tomatillos in a salsa verde. He also recommends preparing them like a traditional tomato, such as chopped fresh with lemon-infused olive oil, shaved parmesan, and sea salt.
The Green Bee’s appeal—and availability—is not limited to the Bay Area. Hempel has 5,000 similar plants growing at a farm he collaborates with in Mexico, where they are poised to break into the Southern California restaurant market. Meanwhile, home gardeners the world over can get their green thumbs on Green Bee hybrid seeds, which can be purchased on Hempel's website.
“Everyone wants home-grown tomatoes for as long as they can get them,” he notes. “This can get you through a big part of the winter until your next garden is up and running.” store.growartisan.com.
Hybrid tomatoes aren’t Hempel’s only innovation. Check out a few of his other farm products.
Fred Hempel recently rebranded his four-acre operation, located within the Sunol AgPark, Green Bee Farms. The original name, Baia Nicchia (Italian for bay niche), is still apropos of the unique crops he grows.
“Fred’s become very singular with his stuff,” chef Matt Greco says. “Throughout the year, he’s always creating something new. Everything he offers is really different.”
Here are four examples that can be found in the East Bay.
Marzano Fire tomatoes
Hempel’s description: “This is a paste tomato that we bred on the farm. It has some San Marzano in it, and you can see that in the typical constricted shoulders, interior texture, and cooking characteristics.”
Where to find it: Salt Craft, Pleasanton
How it’s used: The dryness of these tomatoes makes them perfect for oven roasting. At Salt Craft, Greco uses them instead of sun-dried tomatoes in sandwiches and pastas.
Hempel’s description: “This is an Italian heirloom butternut squash. It is large and has an incredible depth of flavor. I am surprised each year when we sell out early, because it is not widely grown.”
Where to find it: Marzano Restaurant and Bar, Oakland
How it’s used: Marzano's owner, Rob Holt, loves the flavor of the squash after roasting it. He uses it in soups, as a puree with roasted duck and pork, and also sliced, battered, and fried tempura-style.
Aji Amarillo peppers
Hempel’s description: “These peppers are known in the United States, but chefs usually have to buy imported paste from Peru. We got our original seeds a few years ago from a warehouse worker at a specialty food-service distributor in L.A. He had a couple of plants growing in his backyard. It has a fruity, complex flavor.”
Where to find it: Sabio on Main, Pleasanton
How it’s used: Sabio executive chef Francis X. Hogan loves the pepper’s tropical-fruit undertones and uses it in ceviches, sauces, soups, and stews. Hogan and Hempel are currently collaborating on an aji amarillo fermented hot sauce that they plan to sell at farmers markets in the fall.
Hempel’s description: “These kinds are sometimes a bit woody, but there is one variety from India that is the snow pea of radish. Most pea pods are not edible, but snow peas are; it is the same with these. The pods are uniquely soft and spicy, but the actual radish roots are quite bad.”
Where to find it: Delage, Oakland
How it’s used: Every year, Delage executive chef Mikiko Ando throws radish pods into a spring salad with an ume-orange dressing. “When you mix them with the other seasonal greens, it gives the salad a little kick of spiciness,” she says.