Long before tomatoes were cross-bred to have thicker skin and longer shelf-lives, enabling them to travel in refrigerated trucks and sit on supermarket shelves, they were prized as a delicate fruit. They were best consumed straight from the vegie patch, and were difficult to take from vine to picnic, let alone from one side of the country to another. They were full of flavour and you could hold them to your nose and breathe in their aroma as you would a rose.
The renewed interest in heirloom seeds has revived this luxury. Heirloom tomatoes come from the original cultivars of the plant, bred from open-pollinated seeds (not hybrids). They are the varieties of tomatoes your grandmother would have been familiar with. They come in all shapes, sizes and colours, from the bulbous and irregular ox-heart to the beautiful stripy tigerella. They are thin-skinned, aromatic and full of flavour.
Look out for heirloom varieties in your local farmers market or boutique grocery store. If you would like to purchase heirloom seeds, and grow your own beautiful varieties, visit the Digger’s Seeds website. www.diggers.com.au
You want a tomato to be firm to the touch, but not rock hard. Discard any tomatoes with splits in the skin or brown patches, indicating that they are probably old and may be rotten or bitter to taste. Smell the tomatoes that you buy – the more powerful their aroma the better the taste. Tomatoes are best stored at room temperature - but only for a day or two.
I try to avoid buying hydroponic tomatoes where possible. Tomatoes are at their best when they have had to struggle for their life – when there is only just enough water and the plant, thinking it may be dying, puts all its energy into producing beautiful fruit that will bear seeds and reproduce. This need for attrition is why hydroponic tomatoes can taste insipid and water logged.
Buffalo mozzarella, garlic, basil, onions, pasta, prosciutto, salami, olives, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, mussels, chives, parsley
Tinned tomatoes are a great substitute for the real thing when they are out of season. While they cannot be used in fresh dishes they are great for soups, casseroles and pasta sauces.
- Caprese salad - roughly chop up three or four different varieties of heirloom tomatoes (the different colours and varieties look beautiful together), and assemble on a plate. Tear a large ball of buffalo mozzarella into chunks and place these between the tomatoes (you can buy imported Italian mozzarella in good delis – it is worth the price). Sprinkle a handful of torn basil leaves over the top. At the last minute drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a good lashing of salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve with crunchy bread to soak up the juices.
- Bruschetta - Lightly char-grill some sourdough bread on the barbecue. While it is cooking roughly chop a couple of tomatoes into approximately 1cm cubes. Add to a small bowl and toss through some red wine vinegar (or balsamic), a little olive oil, salt and pepper and a few torn basil leaves. When the toast is cooked drizzle it with a little olive oil and rub the cut side of a garlic clove over the oiled toast. Be frugal with the garlic as it can be quite pungent – but a little will impart an exquisite garlic flavour. Top with the tomatoes and serve.