Beautiful and dangerous, a great traveller…
The Incas of Peru cultivated for centuries a small tomato similar to our cherry tomatoes. In Seville, monks who were passionate gardeners grew these plants from the New World. The peasants of Spain, southern France and Italy particularly appreciated this new fruit and spread its culture throughout the Mediterranean.
The courts of Europe were a lot more suspicious of the tomato. During the 16th century the Italians considered it a powerful aphrodisiac, like the mandrake, and named it “apple of love,” considering that it had magic powders. The English classified it as a poison, never to be eaten even for medicinal purposes. It was only in the 18th century that it began to appear in a few recipes. It would be two and a half more centuries before high society would recognise its culinary value.
In the 19th century, Mediterranean cuisine created all the great tomato-based recipes, including sauces and ratatouilles. It was only during this era that it entered via the colonies North Africa and the Middle East, where its culture would develop very quickly.
Brought over in the pockets of European immigrants, the tomato met with suspicion in the United States until the early 20th century: for puritans, it incarnated sin and many people believed that it could lead to serious illness if eaten raw. Since then, thanks to ketchup, Americans have made up for lost time.
The tomato followed a surprising path from Peru to the Mediterranean, then to England and finally North America. It has entered the world’s cuisines for better and for worse.
The tomato is the fruit of a herbaceous plant from the solanaceae family. It comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours.
It can be considered a “vegetable fruit” as it is a fruit that is eaten as a vegetable.
The best tomato is one that is picked in July in a vegetable garden, in late morning, when the sun has started to warm its skin but the interior retains the coolness of the night. This is the time to pick it, smell it and bite into it with your eyes closed. Its taste is suave and intense. It is pulpy, fleshy and sensual.
The summer tomato is fruity and acidic. Tomatoes that you find all year round most often have colour but neither aroma nor flavour. The taste of the wild tomato that originated in Peru and that of cultivated tomato have been deeply modified.
The agriculture industry thought only of productivity and never protected or improved its taste.
However, for the past ten years certain geneticists have been working to develop its qualities. The future of the tomato may lie in a return to its lost flavour.
Very energising, it is excellent for the proper functioning of the liver and helps fight high blood pressure. Rich in antioxidants, it helps slow down the ageing of our cells. It relieves sunburn and is often used in cosmetics to care for oily skin.
My favourite varieties
How does one choose between more than 2,000 varieties? Of course, the best tomatoes are those from the garden, just picked: they are very simple to grow in a small garden or on a balcony. To obtain a flavourful tomato, the amount of sunshine is as important as the variety you choose.
Otherwise, depending on what you plan to do with them, I recommend “bell pepper” tomatoes to stuff, the Rose de Berne, with its pink colour, for salads, the Marmande, which is firm and flavourful, to cook whole, the Andes tomato to preserve in oil, and the white Quebec tomato, which looks immaculate, for the way it looks. As for yellow tomatoes, they are often overly sweet.
I like to eat raw tomatoes in a salad the way my wife Jane prepares them: remove the skin (bring a pot of water to boil, remove the core, slit a small cross in the lower end, immerse them for a few seconds them dip them into cold water and the skin will come off easily).
Cut them into four or six, remove the seeds and then season them with the following vinaigrette: 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 tablespoons sunflower oil, a pinch of sugar, salt, pepper and Espelette chilli pepper. Toss the tomatoes in this vinaigrette at least an hour before serving them. Sprinkle them with a few fresh seasonal herbs and be sure to serve at room temperature. After having eaten this salad, save the rest of the juice that you can use for another salad or serve with steamed fish.
A few recipes:
Brill and tomatoes with aromatic herbs
Oven-roasted sea bass tomatoes and wild fennel from the cliffs
Tomatoes and berries, lively lemon and wild fennel