Tom-ay-to, Tom-ah-to?

There is a trend that consists of combatting the uniformisation of the varieties of fruit and vegetables we cultivate for human consumption by returning to so-called “forgotten” varieties that were grown for centuries only to be ignored when farming became large-scale and intensive. For tomatoes, reasons to abandon any given variety included low yield, even if the fruit was very tasty, slow growers that took their time, “ugly” tomatoes that did not conform to a stereotypical image customers had of what a tomato ought to look like, or thin skin that could split during transport and would therefore not allow for the tomatoes to be displayed and sold for weeks at the supermarket after having been picked.

What we got were tomatoes all year round, tomatoes that never saw either the earth nor the sun, and tasteless, watery red things that could sit forgotten in the vegetable drawer of your fridge without alteration for weeks on end.

So for a while, I stopped buying tomatoes. What was the point? They tasted of nothing.

But I remembered a time when tomatoes were plump and ripe, when they tasted of, well… tomato. Their distinctive smell from their stalks and leaves – sort of warm and green and musty – would tickle my nose as I tried to pull off a cluster of tomatoes without snapping the whole plant in two in my Mum’s garden at the back of the house.

So, I am doubly and triply delighted to see more and more producers at the market or at the cooperative selling tomatoes of all sorts under the common heading of “tomates d’antan“, tomatoes from another era, a kind of horticultural Back to the Future…

Just yesterday morning, I bought some fresh burrata (a slightly creamier version of mozzarella typical of southern Italy) at the Italian deli and had to have the perfect tomato to go with it. In this case, that meant a combination of several perfect tomatoes in colors varying from bright yellow, through orange and red, right up to blackish green.

Tomatoes are so versatile! I don’t usually refrigerate them, but leave them on the counter in a fruit bowl. They can be cooked and baked, stuffed or sliced up on the plancha, but I actually prefer them simply sliced with a pinch of fleur de sel, some cracked pepper, a few drops of balsamic vinegar and drizzled with cold-pressed olive oil of either the Picual or Arbequina olive variety. Infused oil is nice, too, but I always use it sparingly to avoid overpowering the delicate tomato juiciness. 

The varieties in my photo are:

Top left and bottom right: Noir de Crimée, which, according to Suttons Seeds online, have a “sweet, slightly smoky flavour”.

Middle left: San Marzano, with “deep red skins, meaty flesh and unsurpassable for making sauces”.

Top right: Coeur de boeuf or oxheart tomatoes, with a “soft heirloom texture, thin skin and exceptional tangy-sweet taste”.

Top centre and middle right: Santorange, “an exceptionally tasty and extremely attractive orange cocktail plum tomato”.

Bottom centre: Sungold, known for its “luscious flavor and exceptional sweetness”.

Bottom left and centre: Tomate Ananas, the pineapple tomato so named because when cut it looks like a fresh slice of pineapple with its yellow and orange colouring.

I know, however, that I am only scratching the surface of this… One look at websites such as Tomodori, Tomatofest, or Graines de Folie is enough to see that there are many more tomatoes to discover, be they red, yellow or green, round, oval or heart-shaped, small, medium or large.

How could one not be intrigued by tomato varieties with names like “Téton de Vénus (Venus nipples), “Be My Baby Gene Pool Cherry”, “Brad’s Black Heart” or “Himmelsstürmer” (He who takes the heavens by storm)…?

So, if you say “tomato”, I say “which one”?

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