Italian tomatoes

Categories: Product of the week

The early summer pleasures of beautiful, sun-ripened tomatoes from Italy

“A bad tomato is a terrible thing. It makes me want to cry!” laments demo chef Ursula Ferrigno, with all the passion of a true Italian chef—and we’d be inclined to agree: for an anaemic-looking, watery, out-of-season tom is a very sad sight indeed. The British appetite for these fruits is such that sub-par substitutions can now be found in supermarkets across the country in even the darkest depths of winter, out of season and worlds away from their summery best. Until our beloved native varieties get fully underway, it is far better to seek sun-ripened sustenance elsewhere: and at this time of year, that means Italy.

“I was in Puglia teaching last week and the tomatoes are in full swing,” says Ursula—and if the beautiful, multi-coloured display at Turnips is anything to go by, the rest of Italy’s growers are seeing similar bounty. There you’ll find costoluto (“large, deeply-ridged tomatoes. Absolutely delicious”), cherry tomatoes, or “grape vine tomatoes, which are so sweet I’ve been eating them like sweeties! You don’t need to do anything to those”; and smaller, rounder brown-green tinged camones from Sicily.

Rich volcanic soil
“Camones are the best salad tomatoes,” adds Charlie at the stall. “They have thick-ish, crisp skin and while on the more acidic end of the scale, they are bursting with flavour.” Contrary to the popular misconception that redness equals ripeness, camones are at their best when flecked green, orange and red. “That is when you really get the sweet, acidic flavours of the tomato.” Sicilian tomatoes are, agrees Ursula, the finest tomatoes of all. “They’re specialist growers, because of the rich volcanic soil—much like the Isle of Wight is here,” she explains.

Ursula’s favourite, though, is the famous san marzano: “I love san marzano, particularly for a very good ‘sugo’ or sauce,” she enthuses. “They’re traditional cooking tomatoes, which we use in a classic pomodoro. They have thick skin and few seeds, which makes them the best for cooking with as it’s the seeds that make a tomato sauce bitter. Because of this, when san marzano are at their peak, you don’t need to add any sugar when cooking with them.”

Stem smells
If you’re able to buy tomatoes on the vine, be sure not to waste it: “Bruise the stem and put it in with the tomatoes when cooking a sauce, and you will get even more flavour. Just make sure you keep it whole, as you’ll need to fish it out!” The smell of the stem is also a good indication of quality. “When buying tomatoes make sure to give them a smell at the base of the stem—there should be a fabulous peppery aroma emanating from a good tomato. They should be brightly coloured, too—don’t buy anything that looks wishy-washy.”

Of that you can rest assured, as each and every tomato at Turnips has been carefully selected by the Foster family for its seasonality, quality and provenance, grown outdoors in the Italian sunshine. “There are so many different varieties to try,” beams Ursula. “And the best thing you can do with them when they are this exceptional is anoint them with fine oil, and season with a little bit of salt and pepper—it’s true heaven.”