Food and Drink

   

In Season: Tomatoes

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Late summer/early autumn means tomatoes. Real ones I mean – juicy, sweet and full of flavour.

The development of tomatoes through selective breeding has been going on since the conquistadors brought the first knobbly yellow fruit to Europe. They have evolved into a great array of colours and shapes: red, yellow, green, black, striped, and from tiny perfect orbs, to pear-shaped, large and lobed. There are thousands of different varieties in seed banks.

Supermarket tomatoes need to keep in storage for weeks, to withstand rough handling, and tumbling in the back seat of the car with jars of jam and tins of dog food. This has resulted in the selection process being taken a step further, driven by our demand for low prices and disregard for seasons when making menu choices, resulting in the mass produced, tasteless, pale, firm fruit we usually see.

Although tomatoes will ripen off the vine, the sugar, acid and aroma compounds don’t fully develop. A fruit supplier I used once when working in a regional restaurant offered me ‘seconds’ tomatoes at half price. What made them seconds? ‘They’re the ones they missed picking last week, so they’re fully ripe and the shops don’t want them’. I got the best tomatoes for half the price!

Good quality tomatoes have a pronounced fragrance. You should be able to smell the aroma of the plant itself, especially at the stem end.

Keep your tomatoes in a cool, dark place, stem-side down. Please don’t keep them in the fridge, this will impede flavour and turn the flesh floury. If you must refrigerate them leave them at room temperature for half an hour for the linolenic acid to recede.

For a sublime  tomato salad, remove the skin. To do this remove the stem end by cutting it out with the tip of a knife, nick a cross into the opposite end and plunge it into rapidly boiling water for 10 seconds. Then plunge immediately into iced water. The skin will just slip off.

I love a simple salad of sliced tomatoes, with basil, balsamic vinegar, pepper and sea salt – and maybe some kalamata olives and good fetta. Or I make a tart using those ingredients, on a pre-baked disc of puff pastry, with a side of roquette salad. Tomatoes also go well with anchovies, cheeses, chillies, chives, cucumbers, eggs, garlic, marjoram , olive oil, olives, onions, oregano, parsley, capsicums and of course pasta.

And the answer to the problem of accessing real tomatoes (apart from growing your own)? Wait until you can get to a farmer’s market, or seek out the few specialist fruit shops that try to fill the gap. For example, I know The Vegetable Connection in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy keeps a beautiful array of organically grown, vine-ripened tomatoes grown by Meagan Bertram of Yarra Valley Gourmet Greenhouse in Mount Evelyn.

By the way, the latest answer to that same problem by the supermarkets suppliers? Not selective breeding this time, but by extracting the genetic material that produces colour and flavour in heirloom varieties and genetically modifying the mass-produced varieties. It’s our fault really.

Photo by Leila Koren.


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