Mary Kemp:

We were a bit slow on the up­take when it came to the de­lights of toma­toes, says Mary

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This month; the hum­ble to­mato

Ire­mem­ber those lit­tle book­lets that use to come in mag­a­zines; ‘101 things to make with...’ Not quite go­ing to the ex­treme of 101 dishes, I re­cently bought a large box of toma­toes from Bob­bin Broth­ers’ farm shop in Swarde­ston just south of Nor­wich.

Toma­toes can be one of the best or one of the worst prod­ucts we buy. They are avail­able in most gro­cery shops and su­per­mar­kets all year round, so it’s easy to get used to see­ing rows and boxes of them all with uni­form shape and in ex­actly the same shade of red. We add them to our shop­ping with­out think­ing. Some im­ported va­ri­eties, es­pe­cially in win­ter, may brighten up a dish, but they do very lit­tle to add any taste.

Good toma­toes epit­o­mise the best of our sum­mer food, but they weren’t grown in Eng­land un­til the 1590’s; they were brought back to Europe by Span­ish ex­plor­ers. The name to­mato orig­i­nates from its Aztec name, tomatl. But though the Span­ish and Ital­ians im­me­di­ately em­braced this new ingredient, the English were not so keen.

Known as the Peru­vian ap­ple, one of the ear­li­est English cul­ti­va­tors of the to­mato was a man called John Gerad. He pub­lished a book in 1597, Gerad’s Herbal, in which he dis­cusses the to­mato be­ing part of the deadly night­shade fam­ily and he be­lieved they were poi­sonous. The stems and leaves of course are, but not the fruit.

His views and opin­ions were in­flu­en­tial, and con­se­quently the to­mato was not con­sid­ered fit to eat. It wasn’t un­til the mid 1700s they were more widely eaten here and by 1797 recipes us­ing toma­toes were in­cluded in many recipe books. The En­cy­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica pub­lished that year stated they were used on a daily ba­sis. It only took us 200 years to try and trust them; we are not good at change are we?

A good to­mato sauce is the ba­sis of many recipes. When you are shop­ping pick them up and smell them. The stronger and more acrid they smell the bet­ter they will taste.

I am not sure about the toma­toes you buy on the vine. I have re­cently read sev­eral ar­ti­cles that sug­gest the toma­toes are as good on or off the stem; it’s the stem that gives the stronger to­mato scent rather than the fruit. It’s more about dis­play and mar­ket­ing than taste!

Just to be slightly ar­gu­men­ta­tive, I still think toma­toes are bet­ter brought loose and in a brown pa­per bag.

Don’t keep toma­toes in the fridge, es­pe­cially ones that have not fully ripened. Many modern to­mato va­ri­eties are de­signed to ripen once picked, but the en­zyme that ripens them stops work­ing when the tem­per­a­ture drops be­low 12.5°C, so they will stay rock hard and also lose their flavour.

If you do have an af­ter­noon or evening to spare, pick up some fresh Nor­folk toma­toes. You just need some onions, gar­lic, a good rape­seed or olive oil and a bunch of fresh herbs to make a good sauce. Then, come the win­ter months when you are en­joy­ing a dish with your home­made sauce, you will be pleased you did, as it will be so much bet­ter than any pro­cessed im­i­ta­tions!

ABOVE: On the vine or not?

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