Reading the Fridge Classics: Tomatoes
Updated: Jun 21
Both basic and luxury, tomatoes are a universal staple: the base note in dishes from pasta sauce to curry. Their quality varies wildly, as any amateur gardener in a northern climate can attest. I tried to grow them in London and was elated when the first fruit appeared. Proudly, reverently, we gathered for the eating ceremony – but the Homerton Tomato was pulpy and tasteless, with a thick defensive skin.
A greenhouse (or miniature urban version) might have boosted my clueless endeavour. Sunshine is essential to the flavour of tomatoes, and the British Isles don’t get enough to satisfy our rampant appetite for the fruit-that-is-also-a-vegetable (a sobering thought, given the environmental necessity of changing our eating habits to reflect our native climate). It’s no surprise that tomatoes bought at supermarkets are usually a crushing disappointment. So when you hit upon some bursting with sun-ripened sweetness, it’s a revelation – a cause for celebration!
Living in Barcelona fuelled my snobbery. Like all Mediterranean countries, Spain produces fabulous tomatoes, and sensibly puts them centre-stage in the kitchen. Originating in sultry Andalusia, gazpacho and its creamier cousin salmorejo are absurdly refreshing; a gulp cools hot heads and lifts sun-flagged spirits. In The Garden of Eden, Hemingway describes the ‘salad soup’ gazpacho: 'It came in a large bowl with ice floating with the slices of crisp cucumber, tomato, garlic bread, green and red peppers, and the coarsely peppered liquid that tasted lightly of oil and vinegar.'
In This Too Shall Pass, Milena Busquets’ sensual novel of grief and renewal, it’s redolent of youthful summers spent in Cadaqués: ‘There was Marisa’s gazpacho, and the eternal bread-and-butter breakfasts, the railing bedecked in a colourful garland of drying beach towels, the naps that were taken only reluctantly, dressing up to go into town, the afternoon ice-cream.'
Another genius Spanish invention is pan con tomate, whether eaten for breakfast in a tiled Seville bar, or with tapas on a shaded terrace. Best not translate it: bread with tomato just doesn’t evoke the crispness of the lightly toasted bread, the ritual rubbing with garlic, the golden drizzle of oil, the salted tomato sweetness.
Of course, as the base of many pasta sauces and most pizza toppings, tomato is equally integral to Italian cuisine. In Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, Lenù takes her daughter to lunch with Lila’s family and feels inadequate as a mother, comparing herself to her old friend: 'Lila had made lunch. She knew that Dede and Elsa adored orecchiette with tomato sauce and she announced this, creating a rowdy scene of enthusiasm. That wasn't all. She took Imma from my arms and cared for her and Tina as if suddenly her daughter had doubled.'
Meanwhile in The Little Virtues, the Palermo-born writer Natalia Ginzburg explores the development of her voice and craft: ‘I still made tomato sauce and semolina, but simultaneously I thought about what I could be writing … Now I no longer wanted to write like a man, because I had had children and I thought I knew a great many things about tomato sauce and even if I didn't put them into my story it helped my vocation that I knew them; in a strange, remote way these things also helped my vocation.’ Tomato sauce as a metaphor for female wisdom and experience; the daily work of feeding the body that somehow, incrementally, nourishes the soul.
It’s possible to be a big tomato consumer without ever touching fresh ones. They crop up everywhere – preserved in tins, purees, passata, ketchup, salsa, juice. Tinned, they are a ubiquitous basic: on every student’s shopping list, the first shelf to empty in the lockdown hoarding frenzy. In Sophie Mackintosh’s forthcoming novel Blue Ticket, they are essential to the survival of her fugitive protagonist – who, with other women on the run from an oppressive patriarchal state, eats rice with tinned tomatoes to keep the wolf from the door.
For me, tomato juice will always be synonymous with aeroplanes – I've never seen my parents drink the stuff at any other time. Now, it seems sadly naked without vodka and all the trimmings. Legend has it that the Bloody Mary was invented in 1921 at Harry’s Bar in Paris, haunt of literary lushes from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Hemingway – possibly at the latter’s request. He was certainly a keen proponent of the ultimate hair-of-the-dog tipple; on giving Bernard Peyton his recipe for a pitcherful, he insisted that ‘any smaller amount is worthless’.
My favourite ways with tomatoes:
A cold Spanish ‘salad soup’, gazpacho or salmorejo (second image)
A Caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella, basil and olive oil
Pan con tomate: lightly toasted bread rubbed with garlic, tomato, olive oil and salt
Pasta with burst cherry tomatoes, parmesan and basil (third image)
A classic Italian tomato sauce with garlic, onion, basil, sugar, vinegar and olive oil
An puff pastry tart with tomatoes, pesto and mozzarella or goat’s cheese (top image)
A spicy Mexican salsa with jalapeño peppers, onion, garlic, salt and coriander
With eggs: Turkish-style, as in Menemen; or Italian-style, as in Eggs in Purgatory
Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh will be published by Hamish Hamilton on 27/08/2020.
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