Friends, we are back from a short trip to Italy to visit my family. Spending some time in the garden with my grandmother, looking at her beautiful tomatoes, made me think of these memories related, you guessed it, to tomatoes. Possibly the strongest flavour and connection I have to where I am from, and to the most beautiful time of the year there: summer.
On our first year in London, we tried to grow tomatoes. We had just moved from Italy in early March, and settled into our one bedroom apartment with no balcony or yard but lots of natural light and a big table by April.
Short after our move, Jesse declared one night at dinner that no, we didn't have to give up our little dream of a veg and herb patch, and that yes, we could make it work just as well indoor. After all, there was no lack of light for photosynthesis and all that. And so he bought some heirloom seeds from a company in the US, and vases and he treated our seeds to organic dirt and compost. We placed some of the vases with dirt and seeds by the window sill, and some on the portion of the table we didn't use for our meals, the one we used as a desk but that could be sacrificed in the name of tomatoes.
It wasn't the most successful of our experiments. After a cruel selection of the best plants for lack of space, those who stayed grew so tall they almost reached the ceiling. We bought sticks, but the plants were standing in fragile balance, and I was knocking one down every time I ran the vacuum cleaner. Exasperated – from the dirt on the floor, the herds of small bugs flying around the house, and the visible lack of fruits on the plant which would have made all these effort barely worthwhile – I menaced to get rid of them all.
Jesse succeeded in dissuade me from it, and by the end of the summer, we managed to harvest fifteen cherry tomatoes of various colours from 5 plants. They were, as you can imagine, absolutely delicious, and they felt like the most precious thing we could put in our mouth.
We haven't grown our own tomatoes since. But every time I go home to Italy and get the chance to eat homegrown tomatoes, I certainly get my fill. I love them simply washed and smashed, still warm from the field, on toasted bread rubbed with garlic, scrubbed with coarse sea salt, and moisturised with olive oil. I like them cut and seasoned with garlic, salt, oil and fresh basil and allowed to acquire flavours this way for a while, before adding to panzanella, or becoming the topping for softened friselle. I like them in fresh tomato sauce – cut and peeled, left in a sieve to loose their water for hours before cooking them quickly on the stove with lots of garlic, oil and again, basil. The same ingredients come back over and over, and why wouldn't they when they work so well together?
And then, I have a consuming passion for tomato soups. It started last winter, when I first tasted Jesse's tomato soup to go with English cheddar grilled cheese sandwiches; and it continues now, with countless bowls of gazpacho. The combination of sweet, sun-ripened tomatoes with vinegar and fruity oil is something that touches a soft spot in my taste centre – I surrender to it shamelessly.
I make my gazpacho starting from Elizabeth David's recipe in A Book of Mediterranean Food. The base, says David, is made of chopped tomato, olive oil, and garlic. The other ingredients make for welcome additions, and depend on taste and ingredients on hand. For this recipe, I used tomatoes, bread, cucumber, green pepper, garlic, spring onions, and ice, and blended everything with oil, vinegar and water until smooth. I finished the dish with more oil, and a sprinkle of fresh parsley.
Chop a pound of raw peeled tomatoes until they are almost in a purée. Stir in a few dices of cucumber, 2 chopped cloves of garlic, 2 finely sliced spring onions, a dozen stoned black olives, a few strips of green pepper, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, a tablespoon of wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and a pinch of cayenne pepper, a little chopped fresh marjoram, mint, or parsley. Keep very cold until it is time to serve the soup, then thin with 1/2 pint of iced water, add a few cubes of coarse brown bread, and serve with broken-up ice floating in the bowl. A couple of hard boiled eggs, cowardly chopped, make a good addition. Sometimes these, plus a selection of the vegetables – the cucumber, olives, peppers, onions – and the bread, are finely chopped and handed round separately in small dishes instead of being incorporated in the basic soup.
Elizabeth David, A Book of Mediterranean Food, page 24-25