An ode to tomato.

“The Discovery of Tomato has represented for the history of cooking what the French revolution represented for the human society” Luciano De Crescenzo – Neapolitan Philosopher

I cannot even think how our food would be like if Hernan Cortes had never left for Mexico. None of the fruits of the New World would be known and Italian cooking would not have the same amazing flavor, color, and appeal. For sure our Hernan did not cross the pond for botanical reasons but, in those years from 1519 to 1521 the Spanish Conquistador got exposed to many incredible new discoveries and findings, which he eventually brought back to Spain. He was completely taken by the richness of local produce like cocoa, peanuts, potatoes, beans, sunflowers, squashes, corn, vanilla, several spices and chiles. All unknown in Europe, back then. For some weird reason Cortes was first conquered by a particular bright colorful fruit which Aztec name was xi-tomatl (or just tomatl depending on the variety), curiously translated by “plump fruit with a navel”. Evidently it was loved by the natives and consumed in many dishes. The Spaniards got used to eat local produce and to enjoy them. Bringing seeds back, they started what I call the real food revolution in Europe. However, when Cortes introduced tomatoes to Spain, people were not too intrigued, they were actually very skeptical and suspicious. The first tomatoes were nothing like the tomatoes we all know:  they were small, transparent and yellow, way too acidic when unripe, and watery and too soft when they were ripe. Not the ideal flavor or texture people expected to be. In simple words tomatoes did not charm the crowds, and for a long time people never got beyond using them as a decorative plant. It was in France, where the tomato got its nefarius fame. Rich families were the ones who could afford to buy the fruits of the new world, and they did … to just show off. Often cooked and served in containers made of pewter, an alloy made of mostly lead and tin, tomatoes became a major hazard for public health. The acidity of the fruits, reacting with pewter, caused intoxication and death from lead poisoning. Sometimes being rich does not help.  Because tomatoes belong to the deadly nightshades family (botanically known as Solanaceae) like the poisonous mandrake and belladonna, the association with them became the gossip of that time. Soon rumors crossed the French borders to spread everywhere in Europe. Sadly, Solanum Lycopersicum or wolf peach, became the infamous genus name Europeans decided to give the tomato. It was like saying “stay away from it”

Finally, in the late 1500, tomatoes made it to Italy and long before they conquered Europe, they conquered it. Wait! Italians knew about the poisonous rumors about this new fruit. Superstition, suspiciousness, skepticism, fear were the sentiments that were preventing rich people to eat them or even worse…cook them. On top of that, in 1544, the Tuscan herbalist Pietro Mattioli had the magnificent idea to brand tomatoes as poisonous in his book Herbarium. This added fuel to the fire. “Let’s know more before we eat them” was the wise decision that was made. And Italians had to wait the 1700 and to be in Naples. In simple words it took centuries before tomatoes were finally accepted as a food product. Neapolitans are concrete people, and they could not accept the theory that eating tomatoes would have sent directly to the Creator! “Guys! The same people who created this ridiculous myth that tomatoes are poisonous are the same people who believed that the Earth was flat!” Fair enough right? Tomatoes started to be cooked in humble terracotta (clay) pots and served in clay or wooden dishes. It was clear that being poor paid! Miraculously, there was no chemical reaction with clay or wood and nobody died. Naples proved that tomatoes were edible if handled properly and from the 1700, when the first tomato sauce got performed there, tomatoes became Italy’s pride in more than 320 heirloom varieties. This ode to tomato is also an ode to Naples and to its farmers, as our most famous and world known cultivar in Italy is the San Marzano, from the Agro Nocerino, at the foot of the Vesuvio mountain. Sauces and soups which were made with tons of onions and other vegetables throughout the centuries, started to get bright colorful, have texture and great flavor thanks to tomatoes. The food revolution had just started. What an incredible journey and what a fascinating story, almost a fairy tale I would say. But there is a whole lot more.At the school, when we make tomato sauce and I talk about tomatoes, I get all the eyes and ears on me. That is the lesson I love the most. First because I have all the attention of my students and second because history is the real flavor to add to every dish, it’s the secret ingredient that makes everyone fall in love with the dish itself. When it comes to tomatoes, the history is long, beautiful and complex.I always make sure I do not forget to mention that during the Winter canned tomatoes should be preferred to those coming from a greenhouse or from abroad. Of all the dishes we prepare with tomatoes, and the list is never ending, Pappa al Pomodoro, Panzanella Salad and Pane e Pomodoro Strusciato are my favorite ones, especially during the hot Summer months. Probably because they are all bread based recipes and I adore starch, and surely because they all call for fresh ripe tomatoes. I pick mine directly from the vines, in my very own garden.

My favorite variety of Tuscan tomato is the ribbed Costoluto Fiorentino, an old Italian heirloom beefsteak type that I normally use when I make Pappa al Pomodoro (a stale bread and tomato based soup). Juicy, creamy, meaty and sweet, this tomato has a close cousin just a stone throw away from my village, in Lucca, the canestrino(small basket). A real delicacy! Depending on the type of terroir and how much sun they get exposed to, tomatoes are either bland or incredibly flavorful. Let’s go South! Campania, Naples!! Here we come!

Have you ever been to the Amalfi coast? I am sure most you have! Every year, before I fly back to NY, I normally spend a week in Naples and on the Amalfi coast. Fall is just perfect there as the weather is still beautiful and warm and I do not have to deal with the hordes of people who visit the Costiera during the hot months.

I love everything about that area: the history, the incredible food, Pizza, the myth of the mermaids, the people, the colors, the pottery, the Volcano, Pompeei, the Del Monaco Provolone…I love even what I do not know yet, because I know that the moment I discover something else, I will love it ! I enjoy stopping in Sorrento to then lose my breath driving down that mad winding road that takes to Positano. Positano, named after the Greek God Poseidon, with that incredibly crooked narrow street that dives into the sea. The multicolored tiled domed church and the colorful landslide of matchbox houses clung to the mountain is a view that people can hardly forget. Everything there is beautiful and the food is dreamy. In every season. The part that a chef likes the most, however, is the view of the deep contrast between the blinding yellow color of the lemons and citrons and the bright coral color of the tomatoes. Tied in big grape- like bunches, hanging from every side of old run- down trucks, dangerously parked roadside along that winding scary street, they show off in all their beauty until late November. They are not cheap and that’s rightfully perfect. Those small trucks are like magic boxes: they contain huge bundles of dried oregano, braids of garlic and purple onions, baskets full of walnuts, pomegranates, necklaces of fiery peperoncini ( taste one and you cry all your tears) gigantic olives, papacella peppers, friarielli (broccoli rabe) tomatoes, tomatoes and more tomatoes, …the best part of the drive! Whatever tomato type you get in that area, will be a great tomato. Below you have three of my favorites!

San Marzano: they come from everywhere in Campania and other regions of Italy but the best, with the PDO appellation, come from the Agro Nocerino.  Elongated, plum shaped with a thick firm flesh, they are extra sweet and have an almost imperceptible skin.

Pizzutello: it comes in huge bunches, juicy, super bright red and flavorful; Piennolo: (from the word pendulum) This variety grows on the slopes of Mount Vesuvio, gets harvested in late Summer and gets hung in cellars. It can be eaten until December. No need to refrigerate Pizzutello tomatoes or Piennolo. Because of the little water content, this variety can last longer than any other types.

I know you have other things to do and …I just listed 5 out of 320 varieties. LOL

And you? What is your favorite variety of tomato??

Pappa al Pomodoro
3 cloves of sliced garlic
6 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
2 lbs fresh ripe tomatoes, cut into chunks
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup hot water
3 cups stale peasant style bread cut into small chunks
Fresh basil

Ancient and old recipes were normally eye balled and ingredients were added according to personal taste. My pappa al pomodoro starts with a generous drizzle of fruity extra virgin, a couple of cloves of sliced garlic. I cook it on a very low heat, making sure the garlic does not get any color, then I add tomatoes, cut in small chunks. Salt, freshly ground black pepper and patience. When all the tomato liquid shows up, I mix in small chunks of stale peasant style bread, a touch of hot water and with a spoon I stir constantly in order to break and smash the bread into a creamy consistency. I cook until the soup thickens. Fresh basil is the key to success. Pluck fresh green leaves and discard the stems, add them to the soup and combine well. Serve this soup in bowls and drizzle with extra virgin. Garnish with extra fresh basil. Simple and humble dish, pappa al pomodoro has also a great message for all: Recycle bread! Do not waste it!

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