It happened in New York. As I reached for a small basket of ‘heirloom tomatoes, Little Compton Farms’ I felt my lips curling slightly — was it out of pity or contempt? — on account of the poor soul next to me who had merely chosen ‘vine-ripened organic’.
It happened in New York. As I reached for a small basket of ‘heirloom tomatoes, Little Compton Farms’ I felt my lips curling slightly — was it out of pity or contempt? — on account of the poor soul next to me who had merely chosen ‘vine-ripened organic’. At the checkout counter the sun-ripened young woman ringing up my purchase favoured me with a warm, sympathetic smile. We happy few. Perhaps it is the same in Asprey or in a Bentley showroom as in a grocery store, but for whatever reason I was hooked; I had become a tomato snob.
Americans, especially New Yorkers, are prone to snobbism — far more so, in my experience, than Londoners, which is why a certain sort of Brit can make a life in New York out of a title or even just an accent. But the tomato’s origins did not seem to destine this vegetable for a fashionable life.
Originating in Latin America, the tomato migrated to Mexico, travelled with the conquistadores back to Europe, but did not become a food staple until the 18th century. It flourished both in the Iberian Peninsula and in Italy; Sephardic Jews from the Peninsula were more partial here to the tomato than Christian Brits, who did not really take to the tomato until the latter half of the 19th century. Today, the food industry uses it largely for tomato ketchup and tomato paste, but the tomato snob will have no truck with such bottles and tins.
As a general rule, you want your fresh tomato still attached to its stem or vine when you buy it, but even so you may be disappointed. Unless the tomato is really ripe, you are going to taste mostly acid, which is one reason for shelling out the tomato’s weight in gold at shops which source late-harvested vegetables. You want a dense tomato, which is why you’ll do best in a supermarket to buy plum tomatoes. The finest tomatoes I’ve ever found came from a fruit-and-veg shop in Rome run by an ex-communist party functionary; though sound on Lenin’s sins, he, too, was a tomato snob, claiming that only tomatoes grown on decayed lava soil near Naples have a sufficiently intense flavour.
This may be nonsense, for the tomato is an eminently adaptable plant, and is now classed by the EU as a ‘world vegetable’ (and so probably the subject of a thick book of rules and regulations). But there are some fairly classy things you can do with raw tomatoes, worthy of those grown on decayed lava.
The snob’s rule here is the same as that followed by the designers of the iPod and iPhone, elegant simplicity.
You can make a variation on the usual tomato salad, for instance: soak some mashed garlic cloves in salt and red-wine vinegar; while they bathe, peel and slice plum tomatoes, nest the slices in a dish, shred some basil leaves on the top, then pour the strained liquid plus olive oil over all. The genius of this preparation is to intensify the tomato’s flavour, like a dancer’s star turn.
I am very partial to a Niçoise way with tomatoes for lunch: cut them in half, scoop out the seed cases, then fill the halves with a mash of tuna and anchovies; dot the tops with capers and nest the filled tomatoes on watercress or lettuce. You have — of course — bought your capers packed in salt rather than swimming in a bottle of fluid; you have bought anchovies and Italian albacore tonno preserved in good oil. Rinse the capers well, drain the fish, and the tastes of the filled tomato will take care of themselves.
The higher echelons of elegant simplicity are reached with coulis de tomate. This is the raw vegetable passed through a food mill; you can’t shop at Whole Foods confidently without owning this simple, useful piece of kitchen kit. The food mill removes the skins and seeds of the tomato, leaving its pulpy, fragrant essence; the bitter taste of commercial, concentrated tomato paste is absent. Among the many uses for this vegetable nectar — in summer I like to freeze it in ice-cube trays, then float the tomato ice-cubes in soups of almost any sort — it looks and tastes great in crayfish or lobster bisques.
The warm smile of the young woman at the cash register has left me, today, only with the lesser pleasure of the tomato ice-cube. My snobbism has also receded in time, in concert with my hairline. But just as good may come out of evil, so culinary virtue may eventually issue from the gastronome’s curled lip of pity and/or contempt.