Sunday, 5 September 2010

Cook the Books: Pomodoro! by David Gentilcore (Μαγειρεύοντας τα Βιβλία: Πομοντόρο!))

When I recently smashed the very last jar of last year's home-made tomato sauce as I was moving something in the fridge, I was devastated. This year's tomato crop did not get off to a good start, and I didn't end up making enough of my home-made tomato sauce to last me through to the next season, which is why the sudden and undignified loss of that final jar made from last season's harvest caused the same effect as it would to a wine connoisseur who lost his grip of a bottle housing an old and rare bottle of wine. The importance of tomato in Southern European Mediterranean cuisine cannot be underestimated. It is a ubiquitous crop in the typical Greek summer garden. It is also one of the most revered tastes in a Mediterranean kitchen: it's hard to imagine what Italian/Greek food would look like if the vibrant red of a Mediterranean-grown tomato was missing.  

Pomodoro! by David Gentilcore (Columbia University, NY, 2010) is a tribute to the importance of this special crop, which plays a prominent role in the Southern European kitchen. Given its importance, it is hard to believe that the tomato is such a recent addition to  my own country's cuisine. Aglaia Kremezi notes that the tomato came into the Greek kitchen in the 19th century; before that, the tomato was seen as a poisonous but beautiful species of flower!

The history of the tomato could be described as saucy, just like its use. We learn from Pomodoro! that it started off being considered a poisonous plant, related to two other equally unpopular plants in antiquity: the tomato, the eggplant and deadly nightshade are all part of the Solanum family of plants. Eggplant and tomato are now eaten all over the world, as is the potato (another relative to the tomato), but deadly nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is known to very few, mainly Cretans like myself (we call it stifno), and people living on the Mediterranean coastline of Southern Turkey.

eggplants at dusk in mid november hania chania stifno solanum nigrum deadly nightshade
The tomato (below left) is closely related to the eggplant (above left), deadly nightshade (called stifno in Crete; above right), and - of all things - the potato (below right). One look at their leaves and the resemblance becomes more apparent!
tomato plants december hania chania potato patch

Some trivia from Gentilcore's book: Tomato was regarded as poor man's food, not just because it couldn't provide nourishment in the way other crops like wheat did, but because tomato was a low-lying crop; the closer to the ground a crop lay,  the more lowly its status! The book covers the tomato's career as it became an object of scientific interest, eventually being regarded as an exotic garden species by the rich, before gaining its reputation as the most important global non-grain crop, with Italy being "Europe's premier tomato nation". The book also contains some of the earliest known Italian tomato recipes, which unsurprisingly are still being used in slight variations following the technological innovations of modern times (eg the grater, the food processor, a greater range of spices available almost everywhere, etc). Some sad truths about tomato production are touched on in the epilogue, from the import of tomatos from China to Italy while local tomatos were left rotting in the Italian countryside, to the attempts to genetically modify tomato, which "turned out to be a dud".  

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The tomato season in Crete is longer than other Greek regions, given the extended sunny period that Crete enjoys. We can enjoy the taste of garden fresh tomato grown in the open field for at least six months.  It is most unusual for me to cook something without the use of tomato in some way. Tomato doesn't usually play a prominent role in our meal; it is nearly always a highly essential ingredient in my cooking, playing a background role. It is rarely referred to in the name of the dishes I cook, but its absence would be blatantly obvious. Because tomato is such an important ingredient in my family's food, just like David Gentilcore's mother, I make a lot of home-made tomato sauce for use in the winter; tomato is a staple in the Cretan kitchen 

Here's a slightly sharp-tasting sauce that combines tomato and olive oil with some herbs and spices, to make a great dip for thickly sliced sourdough bread. It can be used for a topping on rusk or toast. This kind of dip is commonly eaten in Crete right throughout the open-air growing season for tomato. A freshly grated tomato over a slice of bread or rusk was a popular snack (until globalisation got its way and changed people's dietary habits).

tomato dip
You need:
1 large tomato, grated
1-2 cloves of garlic, according to taste
olive oil
salt and oregano for seasoning

Drain the grated tomato of its excess liquids. Add the salt to the grated tomato, and let stand in a fine sieve until more liquids drain away. Chop the garlic finely and add this with the oregano to the strained tomato in a small wide bowl. Drizzle some olive oil over the tomato. Use this dip with slices of fresh sourdough bread (optionally toasted), as a snack or a light meal, accompanied by some cheese.

If you don't want to go through so much processing, why not just enjoy tomato straight off the plant, just like my daughter!
christine's tomato salad christine's tomato salad christine's tomato salad christine's tomato salad christine's tomato salad christine's tomato salad

Thanks to Rachel, the Crispy Cook, for the chance to review Pomodoro!: A History of the Tomato in Italy (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) by David Gentilcore (Columbia University, NY, 2010).

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