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 dream of a vegetable patch, and that yes, we could make it work just as well indoor. There was certainly no lack of light for photosynthesis! He then bought some heirloom seeds from a company in the US, vases at the local hardware store, 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 and served as a desk. It was sacrificed in the name of tomatoes.
I must say, it wasn’t the most successful of our experiments. After a cruel selection of the best plants due to a lack of space, we let those who stayed grow so tall they almost reached the ceiling. We bought sticks, but the plants were standing in a sort of precarious 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, the sight of which would have made me feel like all these effort were somehow worthwhile – I menaced to get rid of them all. Jesse succeeded in dissuade me from these tomato-cide thoughts, and finally by the end of the summer we managed to harvest fifteen cherry tomatoes of various colours from the five surviving plants. They were, as you can imagine, absolutely delicious. They felt like the most precious thing we had put in our mouth in years.
We learnt our lesson. We haven’t grown our own tomatoes ever since. But every time I go home to Italy and have 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 gain flavour from the seasonings before being added to panzanella, or becoming the topping for softened friselle. I like them in fresh tomato sauce – cut and peeled, then left in a sieve to lose their water for hours before they are quickly cooked in a pan with lots of garlic, oil and again, basil. You see, the same ingredients come back over and over again, in the same order and combination. Why wouldn’t they when they work so well together?
I have a consuming passion for tomato soup, too. It started last winter, when I tasted Jesse’s tomato soup with a side of grilled cheese sandwiches for the first time. It continues now, in summer, with countless bowls of gazpacho. The combination of sweet, sun-ripened tomatoes with vinegar and fruity oil is something that touches a soft spot of mine. I have been making gazpacho starting from Elizabeth David’s recipe found in A Book of Mediterranean Food. The base, says David, is made of chopped tomato, olive oil, and garlic. The rest of the ingredients makes for a welcome addition, and depends on taste and availability. What I had here are tomatoes, bread, cucumber, green pepper, garlic, spring onions, and ice. I blended everything with oil, vinegar and water until smooth, and finished with more oil, and a sprinkle of fresh parsley right before serving.
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.