It is raining outside, endlessly: I can hear my jacket dripping where I hung it up by the front door. I am cold and tired, but I have managed to bring home a gently oozing sackful of tomàquets madurs, overripe tomatoes, snatched up at the market ten minutes before closing time.
As I dry off, and the kitchen begins to warm up, I make tomato sauce without even really thinking about it. Finely chopped garlic and roughly chopped white onions, sweating in a deep saucepan coated with olive oil. Then the tomatoes, torn apart anyhow, seeds, juice and all. Salt. Some rosé wine from last weekend that’s nearly undrinkable. Oregano. Basil. Bay leaves.
A bowlful of this stuff is more luxurious than ice cream, healthier I believe, infinitely more warming. These overripe tomatoes, 69 cents a kilo, feel like the most extravagant thing I have bought all year.
Tomatoes are really a fruit: it’s one of those pieces of trivia that everyone knows, and awful people trot out when they have nothing else to say. Mostly we ignore the fact. But it’s true. Tomatoes are sweet, fitting into the colour wheel of juicy, syrupy round fruits, between sunny oranges and dark plums.
That’s why, when you make tomato sauce, you have to salt them; and why you often find yourself adding vinegar or wine, just to add a little depth or sharpness. There are endless varieties of tomatoes, just like apples, being grown in obscure orchards and greenhouses wherever there are gardeners.
In the last eighteen months, I have become a tomato expert. There are the kinds I remember from my childhood: tiny cherry tomatoes, bursting on the tongue like sweets; satisfying plum tomatoes, perfect for meals in the garden in summer; fat beefsteak tomatoes, filled with warm spiced rice. Sun-dried tomatoes, vivid and strong. Anaemic, watery slices of tomato in salad bars. Tinned tomatoes, dripping sweet and tempting when you lever off the lid.
Then there are my new discoveries: Othello tomatoes, dark and lined, with a peculiarly perfumed taste. Monterosa tomatoes, the standby for quick salads or heaps of vegetables on roasting trays. Tomàquets de penjar, carelessly scraped onto fresh bread and drizzled with oil; perhaps grounded with a little garlic, perhaps finished with a little salt.
Let’s not forget ketchup. Not a gourmet classic, but a real one. It deserves its own category. Cheap, messy, for dipping hot salty chips in while the rain pours down on the harbour outside. Gooey and thick on the inside of a burger. Artisanal ketchup, which is actually never satisfying, but feels sophisticated. I regret to say I’ve never tried the famous Heinz green ketchup.
Tomatoes come, of course, from America — like chocolate and potatoes, those other classics. We owe that continent a lot. It’s difficult to imagine any Mediterranean cooking without tomatoes: dry pizza, colourless Greek salads. You can hardly do anything in Spanish cooking without a sofrito.
I can drink my tea black, in a pinch; I will happily eat porridge without sugar. But you just can’t cook properly without tomatoes.