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