There are over 7,000 varieties of tomato in the world today (seems like our scientific community has been busy seeking perfection…) and Italy, naturally enough, is home to quite a number of them. Apart from the bog-standard tomato, the more notable Italian varieties are:
- the San Marzano, a fleshy, thick-skinned tomato mostly used for making tomato sauces for pasta (they’re the longish ones you’ll find in a tin of tomatos);
- the Costoluto Fiorentino, a ribbed, irregularly-shaped tomato usually used in salads when it’s still half-green;
- finally not one but 4 different types of tomato grown in the Pachino district in south-eastern Sicily: the Pachino ciliegino (“cherry”), the Pachino costoluto, the Pachino a grappolo (“bunch-of-grapes”) and the Pachino tondo liscio (“round and smooth”), all of which have absolutely incredible flavours.
No surprises for guessing that tomatoes are used in Italy for salads and for preparing tomato sauces for use with pasta and pizza. But there are other uses, too: they can be stuffed with rice and baked or used to braise thin steaks in, to name but two.
There are still plenty of Italians today who grow their own tomatoes and conserve them (usually in bottles) for use throughout the year – I remember passing several August bank holidays on a precarious hillside in Calabria, getting my fingertips scalded trying to clumsily peel freshly-boiled San Marzanos and chucking them into the mincer for bottling in a mass, family operation involving about 10 people, most of whom were sprightly octogenarians and who had done all the hard work of sowing and tending the tomato plants over the previous months.
This all produces wonderful results, but I can’t really expect you to go through the whole process, can I, particularly when I don’t bother to do it myself… You can quite happily use the canned and bottled varieties, though I will be including a few easy recipes which require fresh tomatoes.
One thing I would ask of you is to try to avoid buying fresh tomatoes completely out of season. The tomato season is roughly from June to October (earlier in southern Europe, later in northern and for late-ripening southern varieties). Fresh tomatoes in January in Ireland will probably have come from Chile or some other place in the Southern Hemisphere, so think of the environmental impact of bringing them all the way to your local greengrocer or supermarket. Italy is lucky as the south of the country can usually produce tomatoes all year round, with the use of greenhouses – less flavoursome, but perfectly acceptable.
So, you’ll mostly be using canned or bottled tomato. As far as the canned stuff goes, be aware that it comes in different formats:
- Whole tomatoes (better if the can says San Marzano), usually peeled (pelati, in Italian). Sometimes described as plum tomatoes.
- Diced tomatoes, sometimes known as “crushed” or “chopped”.
- Cherry tomatoes. Only use these if you need cherry tomatoes and can’t find fresh ones.
- Diced or simply “sauce” with added herbs (often basil or oregano). Avoid these like the plague. Stick to the simple stuff above.
In bottles you’ll find the stuff that probably a majority of my tomato-based past recipes call for – passata, or sieved tomato. This is simply what it says – peeled, sieved tomatoes. Both this and the first two of the canned variety should only contain tomatoes and salt in the list of ingredients. If there’sanything else, then forget it. Tomatoes are acidic enough not to need conservaties of any sort.
And talking of salt, tomatoes in any form really shine out with the addition of a little salt. If it’s a pasta sauce, add the salt about half-way through the cooking. On sliced beesteak (or other) tomatoes for a salad, I heartily recommend a little sprinkle of Maldon sea salt. Hypertensives will know what to do themselves…