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The humble tomato, not quite what it used to be

The humble tomato, not quite what it used to be
There are more than 200 varieties of tomato in South Africa, of which these are barely a handful. (Photo: Jac de Villiers)

There are many varieties of tomatoes, more every year as experiments advance. The holy grail is a tomato that holds its sweet ripeness right up to the shop floor.

When it comes to vegetables, tomatoes are behind the velvet ropes. I just can’t imagine life without tomatoes. I mean, what would happen to spaghetti Bolognaise, or for that matter what would happen to Italians? Is there such a thing as a tomato-less Neapolitan pizza?

Tomatoes haven’t always been around. My great grandmother would never have tasted a tomato, but then again a child of today would never have tasted a real tomato. That very particular tomato flavour, that fruity zing, so unlike any other vegetable, acid and slightly sweet.

What were salads like before tomatoes? Well, in fact I know what they were like because I ordered a salad in an eatery in the town of Robertson recently and it had no tomatoes or lettuce but lots of finely chopped vegetables and even a chopped-up orange. To attempt making a salad without tomatoes or lettuce seems to me to be an act of folly. 

Can you imagine a pizza without tomato?

I doubt if Provençal cooking could carry on without tomatoes; ratatouille and salade Niçoise would be hospital tray. Can you imagine a pizza without tomato topping?

Over the years the tomato has come in for some bashing. Once when I was at a cash-out in a supermarket holding a bag of tomatoes, it was suddenly snatched from me and a man shouted: “Don’t eat those, they’re poisonous.” 

I must say they can be very dispiriting, round, shiny, tasteless orbs like billiard balls that taste like red ink and blotting paper. The grilled tomato is a non-event, a half-cooked, thinly sliced piece of icy red on the side of the plate like a smear of nail varnish. There is nothing better than a properly roasted tomato but I have too often anticipated eggs and grilled tomatoes to be confronted with this arctic slice.

The tomato has had a tough upbringing; for years, people, my grandmother included, thought that it caused cancer.

Rummaging around in my own bookshelf I found a book called Our Viands (1893) by Miss Anne Buckland who wrote about the tomato: Too expensive to be generally popular and is regarded with suspicion by the poor who “despise and dislike it”. 

As Elizabeth David writes in her book An Omelette and a Glass of Wine:

“It was after all from the Portuguese that the French took the hint about the tightness of fresh tomato sauce with eggs, fish and rice; à la Portugaise signifying, in French cookery, a dish in which the tomato figures. And our own early recipes for tomato soups thickened with rice or bread were derived from Portuguese rather than American, French or Italian cookery.”

I was brought up to believe that tinned tomatoes or tomato paste were big no-nos. My ma, no cook herself, used to say ominously: “She is one of those people who uses tinned tomatoes.” She appeared to view it as some kind of moral failure. However, now even Gordon Ramsay uses tinned tomatoes and my favourite cookery writer, David, agrees that a spoonful of tinned tomatoes added to fresh tomatoes helps primp a sauce. 

David’s tomato sauce recipe should be in everyone’s repertoire and I even found it in my ma’s old cookery book, the kind written in an exercise book and full of recipes from friends, few of which she even tried, with wonderful little annotations: “Don’t, for God’s sake, put the flour in before it the liquid is boiled.”

A few years – okay, let’s be honest, about 100 years ago – an Italian friend and I were making tomato sandwiches. She diligently cut out all the insides, the pips and pulp. “That’s the way we do it in Italy,” she said, and it made sense. Instead of a fall-apart song, we had nice firm tomato sandwiches. 

Blindfolded, I would have little idea I was eating a tomato

We know a lot about tomatoes, we see them wherever we go. They are in most dishes, dried, sun-dried, liquidised, tinned, squeezed, turned into paste, pummelled, pulped, primped. But sadly there is very little chance of finding a perfectly ripe tomato that tastes like tomato; blindfolded I would have little idea most of the time that I was eating a tomato. 

There is only one way and that is to grow them yourself. I remember one day on Paul Cluver’s state-of-the-perfection farm, there was a field of  tomatoes in blood transfusion colours. The effect was quite magnificent, if you had a taste for the sensational. The whole place looked as if its throat was slit, gushing with deep, rich and luscious shades with a hint of purplish blue – that it might have been specially mixed.  

Tomatoes on Paul Cluver’s farm. (Photo: Jac de Villiers)

We picked them off the bush and they were sweet as peas with that warm, just slightly bitter taste.

Tomatoes are truly best when they’re picked close to ripeness, which means buying them in-season and local to where they’ve been grown. Find a farmer’s market near you, or better, a friend with a garden. Last year I picked the sweetest tiny tomatoes in a patch of wasteland beside a house.

Tomatoes that will perform the worst are those which have never been allowed to ripen (this results in mealy, flavourless tomatoes). So, if you’ve bought under-ripe tomatoes, keep them on a sunny window ledge for a few days, although there is little guarantee that their flavour will return.

There are 200 tomato varieties in South Africa, Farmers Weekly confirms. My favourite for flavour is the cherry tomato. They have thin skins and a delicious flavour, especially if you can find them still attached to the vine. The place to buy signature tomatoes is the Oranjezicht City Farm Market which despite its torturous name is a treasure trove.

I found Tigerella, dark red striped with white, thickish skin but delicious. And if you are looking for tomato soup that is not made from tinned tomatoes, the place to try is The Blue Cafe in Tamboerskloof that has the best in Cape Town, made from roasted tomatoes.

There are also grape tomatoes that are the shape of a grape. I have a thing about the shape of food and I really like tomatoes to be round. I am not fond of plum tomatoes.

Beefsteak tomatoes are the ones we are most used to in South Africa, tasteless and usually only semi-ripe.

Kumato tomatoes are generally milder and sweeter than others and are deep brown in colour with red or green marbling. Overall, they’re a great-tasting tomato, but they are more costly than average.

The tomato tzar is the heirloom

But the real tomato tzar is the heirloom tomato, puckered like old lipstick-coloured cushions; they are the one variety that are open-pollinated by birds and wind, which seems to make each one different, wobbly, knobbly, bursting at the seams.

Although I continue to steer clear of tinned tomatoes, sometimes they are a must, especially if you live in a cold country, and can add flavour and texture. Jane Grigson had her own recipe for tomato sauce, which should be in everybody’s culinary arsenal and was made with onion, celery, carrot, bacon, garlic and a can of Italian tomatoes.

“When we return from staying in France or Italy, I spend a despairing fortnight trying to recreate hot and vivid noonday flavours,” Grigson wrote. “A hopeless pastime. It’s bound to be. But I persevere with this tomato sauce, made from canned tomatoes, which produces a better flavoured result than fresh ones sold in shops.” DM

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