I say tomato.

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.


Filed under antipasti, food, Rachel's Diary, summer food, tomatoes, Uncategorized

48 responses to “I say tomato.

  1. Pat McCort

    Your articles are delicious. What a pleasure to read you in the morning – wonderful start to the day. Thank you.

  2. Val

    If there’s one thing I’m not missing about London it’s certainly not the tomatoes. The situation may have got better since I was a little one but I still won’t take for granted the outstanding quality of tomatoes I now enjoy with their full-bodied ‘proper’ tomoto flavour. It really is such a joy. Apples and cress on the other hand are things I dream of.

    • rachel

      I know the situation is better! But yes I’m glad for good tomatoes too. Oh and English Elderflowers I miss them too!

  3. It has been insisted in our house that if we run the ceiling fan any higher than the lowest setting that it will trigger a case of Bell’s Palsy.

    We made caprese with buffalo mozzarella and the large tomato pictured in my latest post on Saturday night. Drizzled with the purest olive oil we’ve got (homemade liquid gold from Tuscany) – salt, basil from the garden. It almost made my cry, it was that good.

    • rachel

      ha, you know! Yes what on earth is it with Italians and draughts, I mean really. Your Caprese sounds like the one I hoped to (but didn’t) make. Next time eh.

  4. I love this post ( yet another of yours that is truly fantastic), especially because I am very glad to see that Vincenzo is far more deprived than you are – a childhood without fish and chips in newspaper and the sunday roast and an adulthood without warm beer! The poor wee lad, I hope he is making up for this deprivation through meeting you, his English barbarian.

    • rachel

      ah yes, warm beer, I’d love a pint now with a bag of crisps in an English pub garden. And yes, he is much more deprived than me, he just doesn’t know it yet !

  5. TD

    Tomatoes in summer…mmmm…want some.
    I recently tasted some organic and in-season tomatillos that I added to my fish curry and it tasted so good. I must try those tomatillos on toasted bread next.
    Can’t wait to hear more about that sauce you are talking about.

  6. caroline

    Mmm, I just visited my family and raided their garden, so I have tons of basil and tomatoes. I plan on making panzanella, since I also acquired peppers and cucumbers, but was wondering what I could do with the extra bread, tomatoes, and basil I was bound to have left even after that endeavor. Bruschetta, of course!

    • rachel

      Lovely garden bounty, lucky you. Panzanella, great stuff, that is on my list too. The bruschetta is nice, simple, straightforward and tasty, Pull out your nicest olive oil!

  7. oh to be in italy right now! the tomatoes here are good, but won’t be really good for another week, really. its hot and i’ve not been cooking so today i start. i’ve been stalking your recipes, all i want is italian and i need something good! so far i’ve picked your spinach soup, the greek salad one, and the ‘short sleeves’ pasta with the tomatoes and olives. now I’ll add tomatoes on toast! mm. x.

  8. Reading this post as I eat leftover chicken salad for lunch in the office… that bruschetta looks freaking divine. We just planted Siberian tomatoes in Como…yes Siberian… (Keep laughing.) We got a late start on the planting and of course, being Siberian, they have a short growing season and will be ready when I move there in Sept! Not sure if they will be anywhere near the maria vittoria.

  9. Beautiful. Although I do sympathize with your lack of good tomatoes growing up, I think summers in the South of France was an acceptable tradeoff : )

    I had no idea about drafts and Italian men. Who knew?

    • rachel

      Yes, the draughts, Now I can’t speak for all Southern Italian Men, but most I know (and I know a fair few) are absolutely obsessed with draughts and the cramps, headaches, backaches that result from being in their path. I’ve been told I don’t suffer because I am an English barbarian who comes from a draughty place so I am immune !!!

  10. I would love to get my hands on some of those Maria Vittorias. Yes yes yes.

  11. Those tomatoes looks so beautifully ripe and full of flavour, I can almost taste them! It’s such a joy to see your gorgeous photos of summer, and summer food, when down here in the Southern Hemisphere (New Zealand to be precise) we are all freezing in our boots and it’s hard to remember what summer actually feels like.

    • rachel

      We had a long hard winter in Rome that seemed endless. Now I barely remember. So I know how you feel.
      Sending you a waft of summer heat if you will send us a cool breeze (just one though, a short one).

  12. there are few dining pleasures that can match summer tomatoes, simply eaten, as you and Vincenzo do. Our heatwave hasn’t broken yet, and I love having Tomato Sampler for dinner: a big platter of sliced red and golden beauties, all shapes and sizes of heirlooms, salted and drizzled—divine.

    basil-torn, not cut–yes!

    • rachel

      Yep, very few. Heirlooms (I bet they are from your garden) salted and drizzled – divine indeed, Heat back, so glad to be London bound soon!

  13. Sigh… beautiful. I always forget that a dinner can be such a lovely simple thing like tomatoes on toast.

  14. I remember tomatoes in Spain on childhood holidays in the 70s – the big beef steak ones, unheard of in Ireland and eaten slightly underripe. Fantastic!

    • rachel

      I First met the big beefy ones In Greece, again in the late 70’s. Served with with olives. cucumber and feta cheese – I thought it was all so so exotic !

  15. janaemonir

    That sounds delicious! The regular markets around here (California, of all places) are not consistent with the flavor/texture of their tomatoes, so I often opt for canned when I can get away with it. Love the canned San Marzano’s.

    Oh, to be Italian and never know a bad tomato!

    • rachel

      hi jane
      I should note, I have encountered the odd bad/insipid tomato here too! VIncenzo
      laments that ‘tomatoes are not what they used to be‘. San marzano, yes I agree!

  16. Oh yum. My mother even here, stateside, used to jar her tomato sauce for the year in one weekend every August. I used to sneak (lots) of sauce from any one of the multiple pots we would have going.

    And Sicilians and their breezes. I swear. I was in Sicily the summer of 2003, which was apparently a particularly hot one and while sitting in front of a fan so not to melt away in Palermo, my aunt scolded me, lest I cramp! or catch a cold! So funny. They were also deeply suspicious of any air conditioning. They don’t know what they are missing 😉

    • rachel

      Your Mum sounds great. You clearly have first hand experience of the Sicilian breeze thing ! it is really windy and hot here today so lots of fuss!

  17. Jim

    Your description of such delicious food leaves my mouth watering…

    Fortunately four of my six tomato plants survived the winds this year, and I look forward to ripe, fresh, juicy tomatoes in a few weeks.

    I envy people like you that really enjoy good food. I try to do this too but find that too often it is merely satisfying an appetite instead of taking the time to thoroughly enjoy preparing and eating a delicious meal.

    • rachel

      Jim – Thats nice of you to say. It’s not always so thoughtful and lovely here, we do our fair share of appetite sating too.
      All the best for your tomato plants, wishing you a bumper crop !

  18. I’ll see your England 1979 tomatoes and raise you a Minnesota 1979 tomato straight from the fridge (my mom needs to refrigerate all produce, whether it likes it or not). I didn’t eat tomatoes until I was in my 20s and didn’t figure out how much I liked them until I was about 30 – with every bite I always expected something sharp and mealy.

    sheep milk ricotta. divine.

    • rachel

      Oh yes, I forgot, put them in the fridge so they are even more tasteless! Mealy, eureka, thats the word I was looking for. I used the word floury but I knew there was a better one. Mealy is the right one.

  19. My grandfather, not exactly a progressive type in the first place, always referred to anything with tomatoes (including salad) in it as “foreign muck”. Having eaten those self-same woolly and sometimes downright bitter Dutch toms, I can only agree with him and you. That said, he loved potatoes, another New World, and therefore “foreign” intruder.

    I’m struck by your phrase “Bread, tomatoes, olive oil, basil, salt – what with all those years of deprivation – I couldn’t ask for more. ” Isn’t it wonderfully ironic how such fabulously delicious, yet humble, food used to be frowned upon in Britain (and elsewhere)? Deprivation was so great in my house growing up that olive oil was kept as medicine in the bathroom cabinet.

    I’m fascinated by Vincenzo’s cramp? My mother always used to tell us that if “the wind changed” when we were pulling a face, we’d be stuck like that forever. Is that the same thing?

    • rachel

      I think our grandfathers would have got on, or not, they sound like a formidable pair.

      Ha, we clearly had the same childhood – the number of times I was told that. No the Sicilian thing is much more superstious, all that hot weather maybe. It makes sense I suppose but I am too much of an English barbarian to notice or understand!

  20. i’ve been away = preoccupied. but i am back and catching up. your blog is probably my #1 favorite. the writing, photos and food are just superb.

    i am jealous that you can have sheeps milk ricotta. mine must be imported and overnighted and well, it becomes a delicacy…

  21. You’ve reminded me that I’ve been neglecting my basil. Time for bruschetta in my house, too.

  22. mmm…so pure and simple…yummy!

  23. caglar keskin

    Tomatoes are one of the most common vegetables all over the world. They are quickly growing plants and are favorite among most amateur gardeners so as me.
    I will start to grow tomatoes in my farm and now learning watever i can about them, thanks for information. I also
    found another good site about tomatoes and so many other methods of agriculturing, i recommend you to take a look.


  24. M E Cheshier

    Yum! Now you’ve done it. I am hungry. TY for the great post!

  25. Sounds delicious. I always smell my tomatos prior to buying them. That’s the best way to find good ones in my experience. Scholl sandals and trainer socks, however…….

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