If you approach Testaccio market from Via Aldo Manuzio and enter through the large gap – it’s not really an entrance as such, more an opening – opposite La Bottega delle idee and between the back of two fish stalls, you’ll happen upon a stall that just sells tomatoes.
The stall trades all year! But now, in late August, it’s at it’s most impressive and for the tomato ardent, mesmerizing, with all three sloping sides and the back wall stacked high with dozens and dozens of shallow boxes and crates filled with the most fantastic red fruit. The pungent, sweet-sour scent of tomatoes – some so ripe the uninitiated would think them done for – and the grassy scent of tangled vines hangs thickly in the August air.
Yesterday for example, at the front of the stall, were some impressively large, fleshy, lustrous orange-red Cuore di bue (oxhearts), bottom heavy, their curious shape reminiscent of a pouch with a gathered top. Not quite as large, but a similar colour, were a round, fleshy variety called Salamone I think, and beside them several boxes of ruby-red San marzano, like long plums, meaty and robust. There were crates of dark-red Datterini, pendulous orbs, some the size of fresh dates others like almonds, clinging to their tangle of vine. Some of the Datterini were as shrivelled as prunes – their thick skins as deeply wrinkled as my Aunt Edith who smoked 30 a day and worshipped the sun. Quite intentionally wrinkled I should add – the tomatoes that is, not my Aunt – so as to intensify their sweet and spicy flavour. There were slightly paler postbox-red cherry-sized Ciliegino, slightly larger pendulous Lancelot and slighly redder Piccadilly, as well as boxes of green, variegated Camone.
There were more, but the heat, the confusion of tomato names in Roman dialect and a rumbling stomach was compromising my research. The arrival of six boxes of Casolino Spagnoletto – the tomatoes on the far right of the next picture – and the offer of a tasting was timely. These are tremendous tomatoes, so deeply ribbed they appear fluted, and pretty enough to be worn as an Isabella Blow – esque head-piece. They have thick almost purple-red skin and meaty, intensely favoured flesh.
The tomato stall is more expensive than most of the other banchi, and quite rightly so, but it means we only visit occasionally. Yesterday being one of those occasions, for advice, and to buy the tomatoes above, one kilogram a piece of Salmone, Datterino and Casolino. You see I’ve just finished reading the third chapter of Paul Bertolli’s book; Made by hand, it’s called Twelve ways of looking at a tomato. It examines, looks, at the tomato in 12 ways: colour, juice, essence, shape, sauce, conserva, complement, braise, container, condiment, side dish and fruit. The chapter is beautifully written, poetic, inspiring, and technically brilliant. Maybe a little too technically brilliant for me at times, but fascinating and utterly engaging nonetheless. The chapter also includes 18 recipes, the first of which punctuates the sections on tomato colour and juice, a beautifully simple idea: a chilled three tomato soup. Bertolli calls it a Tricolour Gazpacho. My soup was not tricolour, but I’ll come deviation later.
This isn’t just soup, this is a tomato education! Well it was for me at least. You pulp three diverse varieties of tomato – variety by variety – in a paddle blender or (like me) with your hands which is much more fun. Then you pass the pulpy masses in turn through the mouli/food mill or sieve to produce three bowls of different tomato pureès. Bertolli call them soups, so I will too. You have three different tomato soups.
The soup of the round, soft, fleshly Salamone was the thickest, with a soft grainy texture and a mild – neither particularly sweet nor acidic – plummy taste. You could add it was a bit flabby, pudgy, but that wasn’t a terrible thing. The soup of the lovely ridged Casolino Spagoletto on the other hand, was thinner but more intensely flavoured; bright, minerally, sharp and nicely acidic. The juice of the small oval Datterini was the thinnest – all that thick tasty skin and very little flesh - but by far the most intensely flavoured; concentrated, pungent, sweet and spicy, a tomato punch.
It’s fascinating stuff. Of course, I already knew different varieties of tomatoes have wildly differing characteristics: texture, flavour, sweetness, acidity, but having them before me like this, being able to taste, examine and compare was truly illuminating. Later I made three simple tomato sauces with the remaining tomatoes and produced three such radically diffrent sugi that we were, for want of a better word, gobsmacked. But I’ll talk about the sauce another day.
Now Bertolli does something very clever: he dilutes the soups accordingly so the consistency and thickness are all different, chills them, and then to serve he pours the three different soups over the back of a ladle into a bowl so they remain separate, like a layered cocktail. I have to admit glazing over slightly while reading this section of the recipe, and in light of the fact that two of my soups seemed far too thin to dilute, the colours were all rather similar and well, to be frank, it all sounded far too complicated for such a hot day, I didn’t even attempt ladle trick. After my tasting, I simply mixed the three soups together and added – as Bertolli suggests – some very finely chopped sweet red onion, cucumber, red pepper and herbs, a little more salt and chilled the soup for 4 hours.
The soup. Well, it’s a pretty marvelous elixir, the three varieties coming together into a terrific, very red whole. Having been worried about the texture, it turned out to be spot on: the pulpy grainy Salamone providing body and proving a bit of flab is a good thing, the Casolini lending brightness and acidity and the Datterini an intense sweet and spicy punch. The very finely diced salsa is a lovely addition, augmenting the soups flavour and texture.
We liked the simplicity of this soup, especially in late August when tomatoes are so good and kitchen activity is at a minimum, it seems such a fitting way, maybe the most fitting way – after bruschetta that is – to appreciate pure, simple, tomato goodness, their very essence if you like. I have a soft spot for chilled soup; vichyssoise, cucumber, almond and this is maybe the nicest bowlful I have tasted for a while.
I’ve included the Bertolli version in full if you’d like to try the clever ladling. But first, my slightly shabby adaptation. You still pulp the tomatoes separately – so you can have a tasting. Earnest face, clipboard and note taking is optional – but then you mix all three soups together into a slightly less unsophisticated, but equally delicious, multi dimensional, bowl of tomato joy.
Last thing – sorry this is all so long-winded already – if you are considering the clever layered cocktail idea, Bertolli suggests you use diffrent coloured tomatoes so the contrast between the three soups is even more apparent. I suggest you talk to your fruit and veg man or woman and ask which three varieties they think would work best. There is not a profusion of coloured varieties here in Rome and my tomato man – whose face suggested he wasn’t particularly impressed by most of the Technicolor varieties - didn’t think that green tomatoes would work, so we opted for red, red and red tomatoes. If you are going for my all in option, bear in mind you want one variety to be fleshy and pulpy, another with good acidity and the third with an intense spicy sweetness if possible.
After so many words, it seems almost comical that this is such a simple recipe.
Chilled three tomato soup
Adapted from Paul Bertolli’s Made by Hand
- 1.5kg Ripe, tasty, tomatoes (0,5 kg each of three varieties each with different aroma’s, texture, acidity, sweetness and colour)
- For the salsa -3 tablespoons of each of the following very very finely diced: cucumber, sweet red onion, sweet red pepper. 1 tablespoon of each of the following finely chopped: chives, parsley, basil.
- extra virgin olive oil.
Core and quarter the three types of tomatoes and place them, one type at a time, in an electric mixer with a paddle with a little salt and process until pulpy. You can also do this with your hands but do not use a blender or food processor you will end up with foam as rigid as cotton candy.
Pass the pulp through a food mill set with a plate that is sized smaller than the tomato seeds, or sieve it into a clean bowl. Rinse the mixer and food mill and proceed with the second variety in the exactly the same way. When all three varieties are pureèd and in three separate bowls, taste, season with a little salt and taste again.
Now you have two options
1 – Having tasted the three soups, mix them together, check and adjust the seasoning if necessary and then add the salsa of finely chopped vegetables and herbs. Now chill the soup for at least four hours. Serve with some raw Extra virgin olive oil poured judiciously on top.
2 – If you would like to try the Bertolli tricolour method, it is as follows.
When all three types are pureèd, check the consistency. Tomatoes of diffrent types will inevitable produce thicker or thinner pureès relative to one another. In order that the soups greet rather than invade, each other in the bowl, you may need to adjust them with a little cold water so as to achieve a liquid that is pourable without being runny.
To start season each soup with salt. If you find the flavour of the soups to be satisfying as is, refrigerate them until fully chilled – at least 4 hours. If you would like to augment the texture add the salsa described above before chilling for at least four hours.
To serve the soup, use two ladles and scoop up about 1/3 cup of two of the pureès. Pour the soups simultaneously into the backside of the bowl and allow them to flow forward to meet you. Ladle an equal amount of the third soup in the front of the bowl and at the line where the first two meet.
My next post is going to be so short you might even miss it.