Il Pomodoro by Susan Mellsopp
Huge, big as a large grapefruit, shiny and a rich red, I was so tempted to buy several of the Pomodoro piled up on the market stall. Perhaps they could be devoured in a quiet corner of Pisa sitting on the steps of an ancient church. I had found the fruit and vegetable market unexpectedly early one afternoon after exploring the tourist attractions of the small Italian city.
Despite it being later in the day, most markets in Europe start very early, there were still large amounts of fresh inviting produce piled high on the wooden stalls. Older women were calling out to passersby touting for their custom. Looking shyly at the tomatoes but feeling too awkward to purchase any I looked away.
Finding fruit and vegetables can be difficult in Europe unless you know where to look. Markets are usually hidden away in back streets and piazzas unknown and undiscovered by the casual tourist. Many of the wares on display are not a suitable purchase for someone moving every two or three days to a new destination, or not able to cook or prepare meals at their accommodation. Frequently failing to recognise much of the unusual produce, perhaps its amazing size made it difficult to align with the slimmer versions available in supermarkets at home.
Walking back and forth again eyeing the huge tomatoes, many still with a length of green vine attached, the stallholders probably thought I was mad. Mulling over what could be done to ensure I tasted the most delicious tomatoes I had ever seen, I wandered off vowing to return. I never did.
Sadly, common sense prevailed. Those unpurchased glorious fruit haunt me to this day. Wondering sometimes if a kindly Nonna bought them at a reduced price at day’s end, her kitchen would have smelt delicious that evening. Possibly the scent of a tomato sauce infused with basil mixed simply into fresh pasta, or used as a pizza topping would have wafted out of her windows into the summer stillness. Perhaps she made a delicious bolognaise with mince freshly ground by one of the tiny butcher’s shops near the piazza. Surely she would have chopped the best of them into a salad dressed lightly with a pure virgin olive oil. I do mourn those sun ripened globes of deliciousness.
Having long dreamt of travelling in Italy, I found it to be a tad disappointing. Usually lonely, craving the company of experienced travel friends who were also in this Mediterranean country, but far away to the north, invoked sadness. Many of its citizens appeared to be arrogant, unfriendly, rude. Not sure if this was due to their discomfort with a ‘blind traveller’, or was the norm for all tourists. After walking through a narrow passageway when leaving the market, I had ordered coffee and cake at a small trattoria and cried unashamedly into both. This was one of the few times giving in to the loneliness when travelling solo. Years of ‘blind travel’ were mostly full of exciting experiences, Italy was the only country where I scribbled in my diary daily about how unwelcome I felt.
I was particularly upset in Pisa after being yelled at by a train official. Attempting to book myself through from Pisa to Switzerland a couple of days later, on my pre-paid Eurail pass, a sour middle-aged woman had taken me into her office and issued me with several paper tickets. This took an inordinate amount of time. When returning later to query why she had not provided four paper tickets for all the changes of train rather than the three she had handed me, the woman exploded in a torrent of loud Italian which seemed to shock other railway staff. Eventually someone explained in broken English that the first section of the trip was on a local rail company’s train for which confirmation of my rail pass was not required. The three extra tickets were for the national rail, Trenitalia, with changes of train in Florence and Milan, then on through to Geneva. Not easily appeased, I shook angrily.
Mentioning this outburst and other difficulties experienced from Milan to Rome and back, which had spoiled my visit to Italy, to an Australian I met on the train to Switzerland, he responded curtly to my comment. Admonishing me for not appreciating the Italian persona, he continued to criticise me overtly. Perhaps I did have the wrong attitude, but was travelling alone and vision impaired. Seldom did I receive any help. Finally relaxing when he and his parents left the train at the Swiss border I knew his comments had hurt.
Two weeks earlier, after a long train trip from Zurich across the plains of Northern Italy, I had marveled at the rows of Lombardy poplars and sturdy Italian farmhouses. Gasping inwardly with delight at the approach of Venice as we crossed the lagoon, I was entranced. It was definitely the city of my dreams with its narrow footpaths, canals, gondolas and the ability to get lost. Wandering its streets from early in the day, returning footsore and tired to the shared hostel room was a relief. The heavy door was opened by a large medieval key. The tiny window looked out over a beautiful garden. The American tourists sharing the four-bed room always came in drunk and talking loudly in the early hours. Never meeting them, they were always asleep when I left each morning, their final act when vacating the room was to apple-pie my bed. Food in Venice was extremely expensive, it cost me 20 euro for a salad that had only a whiff of tomato included. Gelato or something sweet for lunch was a treat, I didn’t know where to find a cheap café.
Leaving this hauntingly beautiful place and travelling on to Florence, staying in a large youth hostel on the outskirts of the city was a new experience. It was situated in a 17th century villa up a long pot-holed drive. Having a huge room to myself, I met another Kiwi staying there. She had been abandoned by her travelling companion after attending a weaving symposium. We attempted to make friends with an Australian who had travelled to Europe for a medical procedure in Germany. Every word she spoke was filled with negativity so we soon left her alone. The hostel was a three-quarter hour bus trip into Florence. The only sign of its approach was a large tree near the bus stop. On my last day the bus driver called out loudly “youth hostel.” I did wonder why that was not the norm. Unfortunately my abiding memory of the twice daily bus trip is of a hot, sweaty and very fat man in a terracotta suit who sat opposite me one afternoon. With a fixed stare he played with himself. I was very glad when he got off the bus. I am not sure why women are so enamoured with Italian men. The ones I encountered were mostly swarthy, dirty, uncouth and smoked continuously.
The uneven cobblestones caught my cane repeatedly meaning I frequently walked around looking down. Commenting on my return home I could write a book about the footpaths of Florence, few understood my difficulties. The heat was oppressive, and despite a day trip to Sienna and San Gimignano, which also included a visit to a lavender farm, I was tired and overwhelmed. The ex-vet who owned the farm was gorgeous, as was his ice cream. I toyed with the idea of asking him to come home with me as a private vet to my guide dog. Dreams are free.
Eventually I found a café near the centre of Florence which had plates of salad and cold drinks. Purchasing a tomato and mozzarella salad daily which was delicious, I was soon revived and able to enjoy the beauty of Florence and its historic buildings. After several days of sightseeing it was time to move on to Rome.
Warned how dangerous Rome could be for a woman travelling on her own, approaching it with caution seemed sensible. I had to check in daily via text with my power of attorney who was concerned I would be accosted by the young boy pickpockets who stand next to people waiting at pedestrian crossings. Apparently they remove wallets, phones and other valuables from unsuspecting tourists. I definitely did not venture out after dark.
Also advised to stay away from the Roma Termini railway station, its wide-ranging shops actually became a perfect place to purchase my evening meal. Travelling on a budget meant restaurants were out of the question. Although the breakfast offering at my B & B included the sliced meats, cheeses, bread and tomatoes which seem odd to an Antipodean palate, a Kiwi cereal offering seemed preferable.
Rome assailed my senses from the open top bus, strangely never getting sunburnt despite my fair Scottish skin. Personal safety was so important I never explored far off the main tourist trails visited by the hop on hop off buses. I suspect this meant I missed much of the character of this historic metropolis. Intending to travel further south to visit Monte Casino where my father had fought with the New Zealand troops, my own expedition had to suffice with standing in front of St Peters at the Vatican in a similar place to a photo I have of him with other New Zealand soldiers. I caught the train after just two days in Rome, much to the relief of my power of attorney, to Pisa where I met the amazing Pomodoro.
Strangely I never saw another market with inviting fruits and vegetables. Perhaps they were hidden down lanes behind buildings in sun drenched piazzas. Memories are slim of ever savouring those sun-drenched fruit elsewhere in Europe other than in meagre salads. Perhaps like our meat, dairy, and other produce, much of the Italian food is also exported.
Writing in my diary after arriving in Geneva where I stayed in a medieval nunnery turned into a hostel, my main comment was that I doubted I would ever return to that unfriendly country. The noise, chaos, shouting and rudeness afforded tourists was not the Italia I had long hoped to visit. Yet, who knows. A decision to return one day and enjoy travelling with a friend to the small villages and hamlets so favoured by travel posters, inquisitive chefs, memoirists and novelists may happen.
But, back to the Pomodoro.
The indigenous people of South and Central America have been growing and cooking with tomatoes for centuries. It was originally an Aztec plant. They are actually classified as berries, but are mostly used as a vegetable. They were brought back to Europe by the Spanish explorers after they colonised the Americas. Reaching Italy in 1548 their reception was not entirely welcoming, though the Grand Duke of Tuscany who lived in Pisa planted tomatoes in his garden. Initially they were associated with eggplants, another ‘foreign’ vegetable which had arrived from the Middle East. Many Europeans thought they were poisonous given they belonged to the nightshade family.
Il Pomodoro spread throughout the world with other explorers. Arriving in China and Britain in the 1500’s, by the 16th century onwards they were spread widely throughout India, the Middle East and Africa. The Americans soon started canning tomatoes, and they have now become an essential ingredient in many recipes worldwide.
It was only in the 1860’s pomodoro rose to prominence in Europe and became a symbol of Italian gastronomy. They were a food for the poor people, cucina povera, because they could eat the whole fruit. By the 19th century Italians were teaming them with pasta and other delicious foods. After World War Two tomatoes started to be grown on a mass scale. There are even books written about their history.
Tomatoes have always featured in my life. As a child my mother planted many varieties in the vegetable garden. Some were tall and staked, some low growing, many were self-seeded. These ‘free’ plants produced more prolifically than those purchased annually from the garden shop and set out in orderly well-tended rows. The fruit were mostly large, red and juicy. Sometimes we had yellow tomatoes, but never the cherry variety so favoured today. I doubt they were even available those many decades ago. We ate tomatoes every day all summer. Thickly sliced into sandwiches of fresh white bread, salads of all types, but usually a Greek salad of tomato, apple cucumber, sliced onion and malt vinegar. We ate them as treats on and off all day, dipped in a pile of salt on the side of the plate. I loved them cooked in butter for breakfast and quartered fresh in my lunchbox. Tomato sandwiches for school made of thin sliced bread was not a favourite, they were wet and soggy by lunchtime and usually ended up in the rubbish bin. Sometimes I took them home leaking out of the lunch paper just to prove a point. Complaining meant a week of boring dry cheese and marmite sandwiches.
My mother made homemade spaghetti by cooking up a large pot of tomatoes until they were just pulp and adding several packets of spaghetti. This was bottled in preserving jars and stored on shelves in the washhouse. Eventually a special cupboard was constructed to house all the jars of varying preserves. Sliced tomatoes were also bottled separately, often in half sized jars. Tomatoes on toast was a Sunday night treat, perhaps with a fried egg or two from our chooks. These wonderful treats came to an abrupt halt when one year nearly all the jars fermented and in one huge explosion covered the cupboards, walls, and much of the kitchen and its floor in sour smelling tomatoes and bottled spaghetti.
Dark rich tomato sauce in thick heavy bottles was another home-made treat, fortunately they did not explode. Chutneys and relishes made from green unripened fruit left on the vines at the end of the season was eaten with cold sliced beef or even luncheon sausage.
I never bothered to bottle a tomato or make home-made sauce. When growing copious amounts of Pomodoro they were sliced and froze in the huge freezer along with apples, apricots, and any spare produce from my large farm vegetable garden. Tomatoes were a great addition to a beef casserole or mince dish, or sometimes fried and added to a meal well sprinkled with salt. A tomato eaten without this condiment is a crime in itself and deserving of punishment. It enhances the sweetness exuded naturally by the Pomodoro. It also draws water out thereby intensifying flavours.
I have always said if I am ever about to be hung for a murder or other heinous crime, my requested last meal will be fried tomatoes, lots of them, crispy fried bacon, and several slices of fried salted thick white bread. No one is going to care about my high cholesterol, high blood pressure, eating too much carbohydrate, salt or fats, as I face my maker. I will continue to salt my tomatoes until the day I do die, either naturally or on the gallows.
Tomatoes were one of the few foods I could eat when pregnant. My nemesis was peas, just the sight and smell of them cooking for dinner along with other similar vegetables made me very nauseous. Yes, my morning sickness was really night sickness, not unusual the doctor informed me. Yet I could eat tomatoes all day and night, huge plates of them, chopped and sliced into big salads, fried, and just eaten whole. I have always believed the amount consumed is the reason I am seldom unwell, not having a flu or cold for over two decades. Experts say the vitamin C and other minerals do not stay in the body, I beg to differ. When they are reasonably priced I eat plates of them all summer for my evening meal, sliced and fried in butter with several slices of toast. And salt of course. Delicious.
While still consuming large amounts of fresh tomatoes in the summer, those on sale in winter in our supermarkets are watery and usually tasteless. The only ones with any flavour are those still attached to the vines, often more expensive than the uniformly shaped bland ones. Out of season tomatoes tend to come from Queensland where, despite growing in fields as far as the eye can see, they are picked green and exported. Ripening in cool stores rather than hot sun spoils them. Recently they were $14.99 a kilo. Golden tomatoes. Sometimes greenhouse tomatoes make an appearance in the supermarket or vegetable retailer early in the spring when the crops in Australia are fading. Often thin skinned, at times the flesh is almost white, and are to be avoided at all costs.
Farmer’s markets are a wonderful source of tomatoes that taste ‘real’; sun-ripened, commonly organic, and picked the day before. Early in the season they are sold in small lots in paper bags, but as the crops increase they can be purchased in buckets. Unfortunately the need to make a profit, with such delectable fruit and vegetables grown at huge cost, the buckets of sweet goodness are very expensive, well beyond this superannuant’s means. An expedition to buy a bulk amount at a tomato farm would be wonderful, but without someone to take me this remains a pipe dream.
To make Pomodoro go further I tend to slice them thinly onto doorstep sized pieces of home-made bread or crackers. A simple lunch prepared quickly. My garden is now too small to grow more than a vine or two. I did have a small narrow plot until I got a large exuberant golden retriever guide dog. Despite putting up a small netting fence and stringing a ball of nylon string over the top of plants, he decided doing the jig on my garden was hilarious. Stepping over my carefully constructed low fence, carrot seedlings, cucumbers, newly planted tomatoes and even radishes, all succumbed to his strictly dancing routine. I gave up and planted very prickly roses interspersed with dahlias. He still thinks this is his garden to do with as he pleases.
The few tomatoes I have occasionally planted among flowers don’t thrive well in the urban environment in a small walled garden. The two dogs try to steal the ripening tomatoes, who knew dogs liked them. They compete with the cheeky blackbirds and other avians who sit waiting on the fence for the first signs of ripening and usually win. Eventually I get so fed up with trying to save a few tomatoes for myself, and slicing up the ones with pecked holes in, I pull out the vines and deposit them in the garden bin.
Last summer I ordered Beefsteak tomatoes. As the country was in lockdown we could only do click and collect for vegetable plants and any other garden accoutrements we wanted. Accepting an offer from a neighbour to collect my order, apparently she decided to put in a large order for herself. On receiving my plants they appeared to be Beefsteak, the labels confirmed this. I carefully nurtured the plants away from cold weather and frosts until it was warm enough to plant them in the garden against the wall. They were definitely not Beefsteak. I grew tiny round balls of poorly flavoured tomatoes. Supplementing them with bought tomatoes I seldom got enough to even make a proper sandwich or salad. Unsure if the neighbour had surreptitiously changed the labels, or they had been put with the wrong plants at the garden centre, it was a very disappointing summer for my favourite fruit.
I love salads. I still enjoy the Greek Salad, some days eating it for both lunch and dinner. Apple cucumbers no longer appear on the supermarket shelves, or anywhere else for that matter. The long green ones are quite bitter. If some Pomodoro appear to be ripening too quickly in the fruit bowl, go soggy in the fridge, or I can purchase them overly ripe and cheaply from the local vegetable shop, I will always savour a meal of fried tomatoes on wholemeal toast. As a special treat for dinner bacon and fried bread is added! Recently I discovered that the best bread for frying is an artisan sourdough loaf made at a local bakery. Delicious!
I taught my children to love tomatoes from an early age. As soon as they could sit up in a high chair and eat solid food their evening meal consisted of quartered tomatoes, a hard-boiled egg, slice of cheese, a piece of celery, a radish and any other salad vegetables I had in my garden, including fresh raw beans and peas. I have no memory of food being hurled around the room or of any refusal to eat the homegrown treats. In fact, the whole family ate only salads all summer, stretched out with a piece of Weiner schnitzel or steak from our home kill. Sausages or mince made into rissoles were an all-encompassing favourite which could be chopped up in small portions to devour with the salads.
As soon as he was old enough to understand the principles of gardening, my eldest son grew tomatoes and sweetcorn. Initially planting them in a large cracked trough full of rich soil, he soon dug over his own piece of ground. Somehow his attempts at providing food seemed more important than mine. Many a double row of tomatoes, several rows of sweetcorn or peas and beans were trampled and devoured by our herd of pedigree Friesian cows. Years of asking for a proper fence, not just corrugated iron hammered onto a post, were refused. An electric fence was deigned to be sufficient when the cows were in the house paddock. Eventually I gave up gardening. It was with some envy that I always looked at my son’s gardens on the various farms he worked on. The owner always supplied posts and fencing for him.
I still devour every tomato I can afford. Tinned are the norm in the winter now. They are added to butter chicken, the low-fat variety I make in my crockpot. Pomodoro are an ingredient in my pumpkin soup, tray bakes, and plain vegetable soup made with anything looking a little rusty and dry in the fridge. Despite their atrocious cost, four times that of local tinned tomatoes, purchasing small tins of real Italian tomatoes adds so much flavour to a recipe. Dreams of travelling again and savouring beautiful fresh foods and interesting recipes in new countries often fill my thoughts. Perhaps I might find the true Pomodoro again in a small Tasmanian country town market, in Singapore or Japan. I certainly hope so.