(I ate tomatoes fresh from the vine, I saw, I conquered)
In Testaccio in Rome, where we used to live, there is a fabulous produce market open six days a week. It has every fresh thing you could possibly dream of – swordfish to tenderloin, fresh cut minestra ingredients to succulent pineapple. Many stalls have a mix of fruit and veg, others specialise in meat or fish and one sells just one thing: tomatoes. On an average morning, I’d say that Signor Pomodoro lays out a selection of twenty or thirty varieties of tomato on his small, packed stall which glows as red as a toddler’s fire truck. First attempt at purchase can be intimidating. ‘What are you cooking?’ he will forcefully ask, happy to question your choice of tomato for a particular dish. He has, after all, the perfect tomato for every occasion.
The thing about tomatoes is that they do not lend themselves to large scale farming. The ‘hothouse tomatoes’ we end up with in our supermarkets are watery, uniform and usually quite tasteless, a shadow of the vivid tomato we remember from our childhoods. As with so many foods, the slow food movement, along with farmers markets and organic producers have been trying to improve our tomatoey lot.
And the wonderful thing about tomatoes, which arguably have been a more significant Italian cooking influence around the world than pasta or pizza, is that not only do they taste sublime, but they offer infinite variety to your cooking (deep and rich when roasted, sweet and zingy when fresh, complex and velvety in sauces). To top it all, they are bloomin’ brilliant for your health too.
So if you’re in Testaccio, or any good market, head for the tomato stall. Signor Pomodoro is someone who really knows his onions.