Astiana Tomatoes: Ayers Creek Farm Legacy Lives On Through Seed

The photo appeared on my phone with the message "Spotted at Portland Nursery today!" It showed a tomato plant in a four-inch plastic pot with a label stating "Astiana Tomato."

Along with the other stunningly delicious vegetables, corn and pole beans grown by Anthony and Carol Boutard at Ayers Creek Farm—I counted more than a dozen varieties of dried beans at one point, though many more may not have measured up to their exacting standards and been shelved—these tomatoes were feared lost to their adoring fans when the Boutards sold the farm in 2022.

Astianas fresh from the field at Ayers Creek Farm.

Fortunately a few area farmers had the presence of mind a few years back to start growing out these open-pollinated tomatoes, but remember, if you only start with a few seeds, it can take several seasons to have enough seeds to produce fruit in sufficient quantities to supply customers. So the descendants of the original Astianas were available from a few farms in limited quantities, though none had ever been grown for nursery stock aimed at home gardeners.

Enter legendary plantswoman Alice Doyle of Log House Plants in Cottage Grove, who saw the value of adding this remarkably stable variety to her list of 180 other tomato varieties. "It's a really good tomato for this region," she said, ticking off its disease-resistance and the fact that they are self-pollinating, as well as the care the Boutards took in selecting seed every year.

Doyle related that Anthony would have the first fruits to ripen in the field for his breakfast every morning. She said he would cut them open and, if they were fragrant and didn't have many seeds—these are paste tomatoes, after all—those were ones he'd save.

Chopped and ready to roast.

Taking the Boutard's breeding program one step further, Doyle grafted the Astianas onto a root stock, a technique she observed on her travels in Crete. Calling it a sustainable procedure that results in four to five times more fruit per plant, it also increases the plant's resistance to soil-borne disease. A side benefit was that Astianas were already resistant to late blight, an airborne disease best known for causing the devastating Irish potato famine of the 1840s.

Doyle was surprised at the number of requests she'd been getting from nurseries and home gardeners for them. "I can't believe how many people are asking for them," she said. Though anyone who remembers the long line of customers during tomato season at the Ayers Creek Farm booth at the Hillsdale Farmers Market could have assured her that these late season beauties were more than worth seeking out.

As the plant tag, written by Anthony himself, says, "excellent to sauce, preserve and eat fresh. From a landrace tomato where the 'Sound of Music' was filmed near Asti in the Po Valley of Italy. Selected and refined by Ayers Creek Farm, Oregon, as the best tomato for the 45th parallel."

Astiana plants are available from several local nurseries including Portland Nursery and Cornell Farm, as well as in the Seattle area, according to Doyle. She instructs: "Do not bury deep so the graft is as far away from the soil as possible. Match the level in the pot so the scion doesn’t root in and compromise the benefits of the rootstock."

Read the archives of Anthony Boutard's fascinating Farm Bulletins that chronicle the seasons at Ayers Creek Farm here and here.

Farm Bulletin: A Nod to State Fairs Past

Oregon State Fair, circa 1996, by Anthony Boutard, Ayers Creek Farm:

Among the activities on hold this year is State Fair, traditionally held over Labor Day weekend. Here are a few moments from State Fairs in the mid-1990s. The animals shown at the fair are the blue ribbon winners from the 36 county fairs, culminating in the big event before returning to classes. The intense concentration on the part of the young animal owners underscore their serious purpose. A lot of work has gone into this moment. State Fair is the wonderful blended fragrance of dung and saw dust, muted light and sound to keep the animals calm, and a lunch and nap next to the stall after a late night at the arcades and amusements. A short distance from the show buildings the noise of the rides, arcade bells, and the unceasing calls of the barkers and sellers of treasures found only at fairs, interspersed with the fragrance of fried foods of every sort.

Got Beans? Make a Pot of Chili!

Unlike the mysterious run on toilet paper—no pun intended there—when folks found out that they may have to "shelter in place" for several weeks due to the coronavirus, it made sense to stock up on dried goods that can last in the pantry for at least that long. As local food missionaries Katherine Deumling of Cook With What You Have and Jim Dixon of Real Good Food have preached from their respective pulpits, you can cook up a pot of beans at the beginning of the week and use the beans in several different dishes, or whip up a big batch of one dish to divide and freeze for later.

My recipe for chili takes a middle road, cooking the beans separately from the meat and chile sauce. The beans versus no-beans in chili seems to depend on whether you hail from north of the Mason Dixon or to its south, but there are also cultural elements at play, not to mention the most important indicator: how your mom made it. Me, I grew up with beans in chili, but because I'm a natural contrarian, sometimes I just feel like keeping the two unsullied until they consummate their union in my bowl, showered with the happy blessings of chopped sweet onion and grated cheese.

I'm also not doctrinaire when it comes to the type of beans to use. I've even been known, in straitened moments, to use canned kidney beans, but my preferences run to heritage varieties like cranberry or scarlet runner, or organic Borlotto Gaston from Ayers Creek Farm. The night before, put three-quarters of a pound of beans in a pot, cover with water by one inch, put a lid on the pot and leave on the counter to soak. The next day, drain them, put them in a pot, cover them with fresh water and cook on the stove until tender, or you Northerners can drain the soaking water and add them to the chile sauce to simmer with the meat.

Beef Chili

For the chile sauce:
6 dried ancho chiles, seeded and torn into pieces
2 dried cayenne chiles, seeded and torn into pieces (optional)
3 1/2 c. boiling water
1 Tbsp. cumin seeds, toasted (see below)
2 Tbsp. (6-8) garlic cloves
4 tsp. oregano
1 Tbsp. smoked Spanish pimenton
2 Tbsp. paprika
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. salt

For the chili:
1 large onion, chopped in 1/2" cubes
2 Tbsp. flour
3-4 lbs. chuck roast, cut in 3/4" cubes (pork shoulder also works)
2 bay leaves
1 qt. roasted tomatoes, or 28-oz. can whole tomatoes

In a small, dry frying pan over medium heat, toast the cumin seeds briefly, stirring constantly, until they release their aroma.

Place the torn chile pieces in a heat-proof bowl and pour the boiling water over them. Soak for 30 min. until they are soft and pliable. Drain them, reserving the soaking water, and place them in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Add remaining ingredients (including the toasted cumin seeds) and 1/2 c. soaking liquid and process till smooth, gradually adding the remaining soaking water.

Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium high heat. When it shimmers, add the chopped onion and sauté until tender. Add flour and stir continuously for up to 2 minutes until the flour loses its raw taste. Add meat, chile sauce, tomatoes and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Stir occasionally, adding water if it seems too dry. Add salt to taste.

Serve with cooked beans and rice on the side, along with finely chopped sweet onion and grated cheese to sprinkle on top.