You Need A Tomato
The tin was one of those old custard coloured metal ones with an apple green lid and a rusty handle. We were sent out from Old Head Hotel every day whatever the weather, with a packed lunch which never varied. We would have been shocked if it had. Inside the precisely folded greaseproof envelopes in the tin were packets of sandwiches, barmbrack -a dry, black, squashed fly of a cake which turned to crumb as you broke it- pale fruit: apples, bananas, oranges that had ended up soft by the time it reached the end of the line in Mayo and little bottles of Britvic orange juice for us children.
Beef from last night’s dinner, cut as finely as rosy pink cloth, lamb with too much congealed, set white fat, proper old-fashioned ham cut from its salty bone, chicken, which always felt dry and slightly choking on the throat with pieces of butter that stuck with it to the bread. Tomato.
What is it about the tomato sandwich eaten in a sullen gale on the beach where the wind has whipped the sand into a gritty frenzy? Or the rain is falling blearily, mistily on you from far out at sea, dousing the picnic with the wet flame of damp that you determine to ignore. Determined that there is blue sky ahead and that the sun, cached behind gunmetal cloud is going to peep through, you sit, damp-bottomed on the black rocks, defying the day to drown you out and send you packing. You are on a picnic for heaven’s sake, the weather can do what it likes and so can you.
What is it about the wetness without and the wetness within, reflected in those slices of tomato which have had all morning to leak their juices acidly, seedily into the waiting bread until the two have become a great soft pillow of soggy comfort. Think of the Greek, Italian, Mallorcan, Catalan summer staple of ‘Pa amb tomaquet’, country bread into which steep –seep- crushed ripe tomatoes, garlic, sea salt, green olive oil: proper sun-fleshed tomatoes, the whole point being to pinken and soften the bread. A sea away from their pale cousin, hot-housed in a non-Mediterranean sun, their tough-skinned personality loved because we have grown up with it, know it of old, and which even the worst and most old-school English of cooks insist on scalding, skinning and depriving of their central core.
In those far-off childhood picnic days before olive oil had been invented, and it came colourless, in miniatures, to help earache, from the chemist, tomato salad hadn’t been invented either. Vinaigrette?
One year, Ann Marie, a French lady who lived in the glamorously Bohemian sixieme on the Rue Mazarine, arrived at Old Head in the summer, bringing one of her two daughters by the two married men with whom she decided, unusually for the time, would father her offspring. She arrived, her black and white hair inspiring my brother and I to call her The Badger, tall and elegantly framed, glasses perched low enough down her nose so that she could permanently look out over them, hawk-nosed, sallow-skinned, flat-footed in billowing rainwear for the Irish ‘soft day’, with her basket, her wine vinegar, her Dijon mustard and real olive oil. A great palaver ensued on the beach. Ann Marie shook bottles, stirred mustard into a magical emulsion, dipped her finger and dup dup dupped with her mouth like she was swilling toothpaste as she pinched salt, ground peppercorns into her little Tupperware box, and, voila! a real tomato salad. Her face as she saw the Irish spread, showed as clearly as the sun bolting across the peaks of the Twelve Pins across the bay, what she really thought. Pah! The Irish. Stuck with floury potatoes and overcooked lamb and cabbage. No idea. As bad as the English.
We couldn’t see the point. Picnics were about eating as many sandwiches as the jagged, buffeting wind and cold Atlantic had given you appetite for so that you could move on to a whole bar of Golden Crisp with its bashed up shards of honeycomb and get back into the freezing sea.
French dressing didn’t make the cotton-woolly tomatoes taste any better. Maybe Ann Marie added a pinch of sugar like we so often have to with sauces and tomato dishes made with our unapologetically unfleshy, unmeaty, unripe crimson tomatoes.
But until I went to Provence in my mid-twenties, I never knew anything else and I didn’t know that the tomato would become one of the ingredients which I would end up exploring like virgin territory once I started travelling to places where the best of them grew. Datari in Sicily, San Marzano, the king of the plum tomatoes for spaghetti sauces, fat, squat stuffing tomatoes from Apt, Cavaillon and the most heady market of them all, Carpentras. Green tomatoes with tiger stripes, black, yellow, aubergine coloured fruits which became ‘heritage’ by name, annoyingly.
Stuffed, gratineed, roasted, slow-dried, in tarts, tatins, pasta sauces, reduced to a fine vermilion paste to dab over pizza, used to colour and embolden a salad, to jewel a dish of rice, with cheese, chutney, meat, avocadoes, cold pasta dishes, couscous. The canvas on which every picnic is worked needs good tomatoes, raw or cooked, in sun, rain, beach, mountain or garden. Without a tomato, unthinkable. Even if all you have with you is a home made sausage roll or sandwich of salty butter and Montgomery Cheddar, you need ketchup, tomato chilli jam or a really good tomato.