I have an on-off relationship with tomatoes. Mostly off. Being so often tasteless renders them largely pointless. Served ‘grilled’ for breakfast – slightly – burned, hard, cold in the middle is a morning misery. And that they are pointless guests in every salad and wetly squished into every variety of soggy sandwich doesn’t help.
There are two main reasons for this lack of personality. Firstly, that so many tomatoes are cultivated in poly-tunnels on reclaimed topsoil without any of the character brought by the vivifying rays of the sun. Secondly, because if we only slice it, we do nothing to improve the tomato’s potential. It needs to be at least rid of that nasty core and tasteless pulp and preferably skinned and seeded. You need to bring out the tomato-y-ness, which is in the flesh.
My father used to obsess about Aisla Craigs, the tomatoes we grew in the greenhouse. Grown in horse dung, the little green husks had an overpowering grassy fragrance and the green seeds were sharp and tasty. You could just sprinkle on a little salt and gobble in one go. Once again, good heritage varieties are grown in the UK today particularly good ones coming from the Isle of Wight, who seem to be doing for tomatoes what Jersey did for potatoes. For me, though nothing quite beats Italian San Marzano tomatoes; they have a deep sunshine bloodiness that makes them a delight with a creamy burrata, basil and black pepper.
Cooking with tomatoes
I was clearing space in my fridge recently and decided to use up some remaining tomato sauce in a Bloody Mary sorbet: vodka, fino sherry, tabasco, a dollop of horseradish, celery salt, capers and black pepper in with your tomato sauce. Churn it and serve soft with langoustines, lobster, crab and crayfish.
A tip for breakfast: halve and core them, put face down in hot oil and let them frizzle. At some point press down on the tomato so the juice is released and brings a rich savour to the rest of the fry-up.
I was taught how to make tomato sauce by a relative of Ruth Rogers of River Café fame, so it ought to be good. Especially since Rogers claims tomato sauce is one thing she simply could not live without.
The secret is to use good quality Italian tinned tomatoes. Traditionally San Marzano plum tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius are the best. Before decanting them into a pan, squeeze all of the watery tomato liquid out of the tin so you are only left with the flesh. This means about four tins for quite a small amount of sauce.
Cut a very generous amount of garlic into large slices. Add to extra virgin olive oil with some green peppercorns, freshly cracked black pepper and salt. When the garlic is about to go brown, empty the tins of tomatoes into the pan. Have the lid handy as it will spit vigorously.
Now just leave it to reduce very slowly until dark crimson.