Food writer Lindsey Bareham talks to Christopher Hirst about the fruit that started life as an aphrodisiac in South America and is now scaling new heights in modern British cookery
A vital ingredient in many cuisines started out as a tiny, bitter berry in South America. Over time, the tomato moved north to Mexico where it was cultivated by the Aztecs who combined the xitomatl in sauces with chillies. Spanish invaders added vinegar to make salsa. Though the tomato crossed the Atlantic in the 1550s, it was slow to catch on in European kitchens. The gleaming red fruit was initially regarded as an aphrodisiac, hence the Italian name pomodoro (apple of love). As food scientist Harold McGee points out, the tomato 'has a relatively low sugar content and... an unusually large amount of savoury glutamic acid'. The result is a fruit that tastes more like a vegetable. In Flora Thompson's Lark Rise To Candleford, set around 1900, a countrywoman warns against trying 'tommytoes': 'It'll only make 'ee sick. I had one of the nasty, horrid things at our Minnie's.' Fortunately, others were less reluctant.
In 1845, Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery For Private Families included recipes for roast, stewed and forced (stuffed) 'tomatas'. Victorians were also keen on tomato ketchup; in a recipe from 1857, tomatoes were baked, then sieved and simmered with chilli-infused vinegar and garlic. The thickened, sweetened ketchup from HJ Heinz was launched in the US in 1876 with the slogan 'Blessed relief for mother and other women in the household'.
The tomato proved ideally suited to Italy, where it became the favourite topping for both pasta and pizza. Few of the 300 varieties grown in Italy make it to Britain in fresh form, though we can enjoy richly- flavoured tinned tomatoes. Older people will remember when British salads consisted of floppy lettuce and flavour-free tomatoes. Moneymaker, the main tomato grown at that time, produced large trusses at the expense of taste. Only in recent years have tastier tomatoes become widely available.
There is a cookbook solely devoted to the tomato. The Big Red Book Of Tomatoes by Lindsey Bareham is packed with recipes for soups, salsas, salads, tarts, sauces and much more. 'The moment you get home with tomatoes, take them out of their packaging,' she writes. 'Place them in a basket or bowl, as you would any fruit, and leave them at room temperature. Most of the tomatoes we buy in the supermarket – even those on the vine – will improve their flavour if kept at room temperature for a few days.'
Lindsey is one of our finest food writers, but why did she write a book on tomatoes? 'I've always adored them. My dad grew them and I remember the smell in his greenhouse, but the first time I became aware that tomatoes had potential beyond salad was during a French holiday when I was 12; I saw big, fat tomatoes stuffed with minced meat with a little pixie's hat made from the tomato top.'
Talking about her favourite food, Lindsey naturally drifted into recipes. 'I can never resist a bargain. If you buy cheap, ripe tomatoes, you can halve them, smear with olive oil, season and roast gently (150ºC). Tune up the flavours with branches of rosemary and thyme. You can then liquidise, dilute with stock and you've got a delicious sauce or soup. Or you can keep the roast tomatoes whole in a box in the fridge. Rub garlic on toasted bread with a splash of olive oil. Spread on a roast tomato from the fridge and top with a crumble of feta, a couple of slices of mozzarella or a couple of sheets of Parma ham.
Sometimes, Lindsey cannot resist a top-class tom. 'In the UK, I reckon Isle of Wight tomatoes are the best. They have a really good flavour. One of my local shops sells big, knobbly tomatoes from Italy. They cost an arm and a leg but I keep one on the windowsill. It's almost a sculpture and the taste is sensational.'
The Big Red Book Of Tomatoes by Lindsey Bareham is published by Grub Street at £15.99.
Isle of Wight tomatoes are available from farm shops and delis nationwide: 01983-866907, www.thetomatostall.co.uk
ROASTED TOMATO AND PESTO TARTS
This is a tart recipe that bypasses the unwelcome inevitability of soggy pastry and insipid tomatoes. Here, these elements are cooked separately. While the puff pastry cooks, the tomato halves are roasted. I've made two tarts but the same ingredients could be used to make one big or several small ones.
- 14 ripe medium tomatoes, cored, peeled and halved
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 250g ready-rolled puff pastry
- 4 tbsp pesto
- fresh basil to garnish
Preheat the oven to 400°F/200°C/gas mark 6. Lay out the tomato halves, cut side up, on a lightly oiled baking
sheet. Paint the cut surfaces with a little oil, and season. Place the tomatoes on the bottom shelf in the oven (before it's come up to temperature).
Meanwhile, cut two 15cm circles from the pastry using a small plate to guide you. Paint one side liberally with olive oil and flip it over on to a foil-lined baking sheet. Prick the unoiled surface all over with the tines of a fork, then oil this surface as before.
When the oven is ready, place the baking sheet on the top shelf and cook for 10-15 minutes until the surface is brown and semi-risen. Use an egg slice to flip the pastry discs so that the still flabby underside is uppermost. Press down to flatten and return to the oven for a further 5 minutes or until flaky and golden. If necessary, flatten the now thoroughly cooked pastry again. The tomatoes should be squashy by now, but if they are not, keep cooking them until they are.
Spread each pastry circle with 2 tablespoons of pesto right up to the edge. Cover the pesto with tomato halves. Once assembled, the tarts will stay sag-free for around 4 hours. Serve hot or cold. Garnish with fresh basil.
Tomatoes tucked inside pepper halves that have been strewn with scraps of garlic are roasted with olive oil and garnished with slivers of anchovy. This excellent combination originates from Elizabeth David's Italian Food, published in 1954. Make it when red, possibly yellow but never green, peppers and tomatoes are at their most plentiful. Plenty of crusty bread is essential for mopping-up purposes.
- 6 even-sized red peppers
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 6 or more plump garlic cloves, sliced into wafer-thin rounds
- 12 ripe tomatoes, preferably plum, cored, peeled and halved lengthways
- 6 tbsp olive oil
- 12 anchovy fillets
Preheat the oven to 425°F/220°C/gas mark 7. Slice the peppers in half through the stalk, keeping the stalk intact. Use a small, sharp knife to remove the seeds, the white membrane and any unformed baby peppers. Rinse inside and out. Drain.
Choose a heavyweight roasting tin and lay out the pepper halves, cut side up. Season with salt and pepper and spread with a few garlic slices.
Tuck two tomato halves inside each pepper half, cutside down, to fill the cavity, and season again. Pour ½ tablespoon olive oil over each pepper half. Place the tray near the top of the oven and cook for 20 minutes, then lower the heat to 350°F/180°C/gas mark 4, and cook for a further 20 minutes. Remove from the oven.
While the peppers are cooking, cut each anchovy fillet into four strips and as soon as the peppers come out of the oven, use them to make a cross over the centre of each pepper.
Leave the peppers to cool in the dish. Use a fish slice to scoop them on to a serving dish – a white one is best for this – and spoon over the juices.
If you need to keep the peppers hanging around, cover them with a generous wrapping of clingfilm and store in the fridge. They will keep perfectly for about 4 days.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"DEEPLY-ROOTED is the idea that men are indifferent to dress, while the ladies, God bless them, think of nothing else"The Lady, With Prejudice, 8th January, 1942