Vincenzo thinks I was a deprived child. He’s right of course, I was deprived – growing up, as I did, in a small town just outside London in the late 1970′s – of the full taste and perfume of good tomatoes. Tomatoes ripened on the vine under the sun that smell like the viney tangle that surrounds them. Fiery tomatoes, saturated with colour, their scent pungent, sometimes sour, almost grassy. Tomatoes with texture and flavour; some dry, meaty and acidic; others mild, soft-fleshed and plummy; some like tiny pendulous orbs, sharp, spicy and sweet.
We did have tomatoes in the home counties in 1979, but like Prime minister elected that same year, they were dreadful, depressing things grown under plastic in the suburbs of Chichester or imported from a hot houses in the Netherlands. I can only remember one type, standard sized, an unconvincing and weedy red. They were called all-purpose tomatoes. No purpose would have been a more appropriate. They generally tasted of nothing, and when they did it was insipid, rather like the white flesh next to the rind of an unripe melon. Their texture, well, two extremes here and seemingly nothing in-between; hard as a rock or unpleasantly soft, floury and mushy. Both good for hurling though!
So we avoided them. After all – despite popular belief – we had enough good things in England, even in 1979, to eat really well without tomatoes. In our family at least. And it wasn’t as if we were completely bereft! There was the annual summer holiday to the south of France, where along with Bonne maman jam, really smelly cheese, cheese with holes, long sticks of bread, tiny black olives, orange Fanta in a glass bottle with a straw, mussels and chocolate croissants, there would be good tomatoes. If we needed tomatoes back home, then it was probably for something hot and slowly cooked, in which case Mum bought tinned Italian plum tomatoes.
Vincenzo on the other hand, growing up in Sicily, Basilicata and then Rome, suffered no such tomato deprivation. He was however deprived of English peas, English apples, clotted cream, fish and chips eaten from newspaper at the seaside, London Pride, Pimms, watercress, full English breakfast and roast potatoes, but that’s anther post. His maternal grandparents had a farm in southern Sicily near Vittoria where they cultivated olives, almonds, cotton, grapes, artichokes and tomatoes. Even when his parents left Sicily, Vincenzo would return to spend the long school holidays there. Hardly surprisingly The Caristia Family – fortified by pasta and bread and lubricated by their wine and oil – lived, quite literally, on tomatoes. Straight from the vine in summer. Then sometime in late August, over a wood fire in the street in front of their house, in a pan large enough for Vincenzo and his cousin Orazio to hide in, his grandmother would bottle gallons and gallons of tomato sauce, salsa di pomodoro, to put away for the winter months.
There’ll be no talk of gallons in this very small, very hot Roman apartment. I do intend to preserve at least some salsa di pomodoro though, a modest batch, a bright taste of summer bottled and tucked away for the winter. We did a trial run last week, 3 kilos of San Marzano tomatoes – cooked until soft and then passed through the mouli – yielded 3 bottles, a small pot and only two small burns. Further bottling has been postoned until I get back from London though. For now we are enjoying tomatoes just so.
I was also hoping to write about the tomato and mozzarella salad, the lnsalata Caprese we had on Tuesday. I nearly did because the pictures are good and the mozzarella di bufala noteworthy, but if the truth be known, the tomatoes, cuore di bue, although handsome were really disappointing – not by England-in-1979 standards – but disappointing nonetheless. So I’ll just tell you about these tiny tomatoes, the ones in the pictures, i pomodori ciliegini, called maria vittoria I think, from near Naples. Perfect little things, clinging to the vine, slightly wrinkled, the skin thick, the flesh meaty, intense with flavour, sweet and spicy.
Having eaten at least a dozen straight from the paper bag – they literally pop in your mouth – we made bruschetta al pomodoro. Tomatoes on toast to me.
We cut the tomatoes in half, the larger ones in quarters, and put them in a bowl with first, a pinch of coarse salt, then after the salt, a few good glugs of extra virgin olive oil, and some torn – not cut – basil leaves. Stir. We let the tomatoes sit, macerating, releasing their juices while we toasted two slices of sour dough bread – obviously in an ideal world we would have a grill over a wood fire. We rubbed the toast with half a clove of peeled garlic and then shared the tomatoes and their oily, tomatoey, salty, juices between the two slices. Vincenzo poured a little more oil over his.
There was some sheeps milk ricotta too, in case we wanted to squash some on top! But we ended up leaving it for supper. Bread, tomatoes, olive oil, basil, salt – what with all those years of deprivation - I couldn’t ask for more. Good things indeed. We ate our bruschetta sitting by the front door. The heat spell has broken, and so as we ate a cool breeze whipped happily between our two rooms. Vincenzo was obsessed, as are all the Sicilians I know, that the breeze would give him a cramp. It did.
I must note that the tomato situation has improved vastly in the UK in the last 20 years – especially with trailblazing organic growers like Riverford farm.