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, Upstate New York Edition

In the time since Anthony and Carol Boutard sold their Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston nearly a year-and-a-half ago, I'm often asked about how they're doing at their new home in the small village of Penn Yan in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

I received a note from Carol yesterday that said, "I wanted you to see the borlotto I harvested a few days ago. I'm so glad our bean days aren't behind us!" The photo on the left was attached.

Touting their estimable contribution to our tables over 24 years of farming, breeding crops and sharing their expertise with the wider food community, a recent article at Oregon Public Broadcasting about Oregon's Legume Legacy noted, "the local bean boom was…invigorated by growers like Anthony Boutard, whose Ayers Creek Farm produced the gold standard of comestibles, appreciated mainly by the Northwest’s top chefs and die-hard home cooks."

Their legions of local fans would not disagree.

Read Anthony's original series of Farm Bulletins here and here.

Each Leaf Singing: Poems from the Life of an Oregon Farm

Carol Boutard and her husband Anthony have been dear friends of mine since we first met fourteen years ago at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market, where I'd sought them out after tasting their incredible blackcap jam. (I knew we were fated to be fast friends when she and I subsequently plotted to start a catalog of sexual aids featuring foods like that jam that were so good you wanted to lick it off.) Their Ayers Creek Farm is legendary in the region for the quality of the organic products they have grown on its 144 acres for more than 20 years.

Carol has published her first book of poetry titled "Each Leaf Singing," a paen to the life of that farm and an elegy to both Anthony, who is living with a terminal illness, and the farm itself, which she celebrates at the same time as grieving its eventual loss.

But what a life they've had there. I wrote in my very first post about this incredible couple, "When they started talking about their 144 acres near Gaston and their eyes lit up when they told about the arrowhead lilies that grow there and how they changed to a drip irrigation system because the overhead sprinklers were washing out the birds' nests, I knew this wasn't going to be an ordinary evening.

"These two are as committed to the stewardship of their land as they are to the quality of the berries and grains they've become known for. It's evident in the way Anthony (known as the Bard of Ayers Creek) describes how the lake on their property is returning and that the least bitterns, herons and eagles are coming back. And, too, when Carol said that they stop picking the berries when the fruit loses its brilliance after the first few pickings, even though there's fruit left on the vines."

As Rosemary Catacalos, Texas State Poet Laureate Emerita, writes of Boutard's poems, "After decades of intimacy with the turning of the earth and its seasons, Caroline Boutard has given us a book brimming with an ancient wisdom. In these poems our harried modern lives can slow down and remember the blessed comings and goings of all things. We can learn again what it means to grieve and celebrate in the same breath. Because we must. Trust this voice, 'dumb on sun and sugar,' to sing you into now and whatever comes next."

A poem titled "Old Oak" is emblematic of that singular voice.

Old Oak

I leave the work and rush out
to early spring
with no more plan than a good walk
as robins and juncos,
flashing like jackknives,
cleave low angles of afternoon light.
No route than stepping round the mud,
I pass through a veil of smoky air,
its note of orange blossom
from old oak dried slow,
then burned in a clean hearth,
to breathe in
this sweet musk and find
every grassy thing along the way roused
by the warm day, their stems extended
like antennae tuned to the fresh season.
I stop to harvest
from the ruddy mix of plants
galloping through the field—
sow thistle and poppy,
wild radish, dandelion, cress,
so full of healing
you have to eat them standing up,
everything around me
pushing toward renewal.
The plan here is more life,
then more.

Carol is launching this stunning collection with a virtual reading on Thursday, Sept. 30, at 7pm (PST) via Zoom (click on this link to attend).

Read Anthony Boutard's essays on Ayers Creek Farm that have been a vital part of Good Stuff NW here and here.

Rerun: A Good Woman Makes A Good Soup

I made this soup the other night, and if you looked up "comfort" in the dictionary, it wouldn't show your mom or your teddy bear or your pillow or your fuzzy slippers. It would be a picture of this soup along with the recipe. (BTW, I puréed it this time…what can I say but OMG.) Warm, terrifically flavorful and fill-your-belly delicious, it's easy and perfect for the season. And, though I don't do this often, I'm rerunning the original post I wrote two years ago. Enjoy.

Just before the holidays I was out at Ayers Creek Farm helping Carol and Anthony get ready for the big holiday market at Hillsdale. Well, I say "helping" but it's more like "trying to not seriously f*** things up" while packing boxes of preserves, weighing and measuring beans, polenta and wheat into little bags with a big scoop.

One of the great things about these days at the farm, aside from getting to wear my boots if outside work is required, is sitting down at the table for a big lunch of soup or stew, a hefty loaf of bread and a nice chunk of cheese. On this day, a bit before lunchtime, Carol asked me to pull a big pot out of the fridge that contained braised leeks and potatoes in a white-ish liquid.

While that warmed on the stove, Carol and I went just outside to the kitchen garden to gather a few leaves of sorrel that hadn't yet gone dormant. (Note to self: plant this next year!) It was chopped and thrown into the pot, a cup or so of sour cream was stirred in with some salt and we had a classic "Potage Bonne Femme," a potato leek soup rather like vichysoisse only with more leeks than potatoes.

Carol prefers to use water to cook her vegetables rather than chicken stock, feeling that the flavor of the leeks is more pronounced. In my attempts to recreate this at home, I used half chicken stock and half water and it didn't seem to overwhelm the leeks, and also added a little richness. I've made it with both real sour cream and (purists don't choke) Tofutti sour cream—Dave's lactose intolerant, remember—and both were amazing, even according to my very choosy son who's not crazy about substituting tofu products for the real thing.

It's a comforting, rich and company-worthy meal that is super simple to make in an hour or so. Add a crusty loaf of bread and some cheese with an ice-cold glass of French chardonnay alongside and you're going to get raves from your crew.

Potage Bonne Femme (Potato Leek Soup)

3 Tbsp. butter
4 leeks, halved and cut into 1/2" slices, about 4 c.
3 Tbsp. flour
2 c. water
2 c. chicken stock
4 med. Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1/2" or so cubes
2 tsp. salt
1 c. sour cream
1 c. coarsely chopped sorrel (optional)
3 Tbsp. chives, minced (optional)

Melt butter in soup pot or large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add chopped leeks and cook slowly for 5 min. Remove from heat, add flour and stir. Put back on heat and cook, stirring constantly and without browning for a minute. Add water and stock, stirring well. Add potatoes and salt. Bring to boil and lower heat to simmer for 50 minutes. Add sour cream and chives and stir to heat. Adjust salt to taste. Serve, garnished with chopped chives.

Option: Purée with immersion blender before adding the sour cream or cool and purée in a food processor (or blender) in batches. For a vegetarian or vegan version, substitute margarine for the butter and use water or a vegetable stock and Tofutti sour cream. Really, it'll be fantastic.