Magazine article The Spectator

Tomato Snobbism

Magazine article The Spectator

Tomato Snobbism

Article excerpt

It happened in New York. As I reached for a small basket of 'heirloom tomatoes, Little Compton Farms' I felt my lips curling slightly -- was it out of pity or contempt? -- on account of the poor soul next to me who had merely chosen 'vine-ripened organic'. At the checkout counter the sun-ripened young woman ringing up my purchase favoured me with a warm, sympathetic smile. We happy few. Perhaps it is the same in Asprey or in a Bentley showroom as in a grocery store, but for whatever reason I was hooked; I had become a tomato snob.

Americans, especially New Yorkers, are prone to snobbism -- far more so, in my experience, than Londoners, which is why a certain sort of Brit can make a life in New York out of a title or even just an accent.

But the tomato's origins did not seem to destine this vegetable for a fashionable life.

Originating in Latin America, the tomato migrated to Mexico, travelled with the conquistadores back to Europe, but did not become a food staple until the 18th century. It flourished both in the Iberian Peninsula and in Italy; Sephardic Jews from the Peninsula were more partial here to the tomato than Christian Brits, who did not really take to the tomato until the latter half of the 19th century. Today, the food industry uses it largely for tomato ketchup and tomato paste, but the tomato snob will have no truck with such bottles and tins.

As a general rule, you want your fresh tomato still attached to its stem or vine when you buy it, but even so you may be disappointed. Unless the tomato is really ripe, you are going to taste mostly acid, which is one reason for shelling out the tomato's weight in gold at shops which source late-harvested vegetables. You want a dense tomato, which is why you'll do best in a supermarket to buy plum tomatoes. The finest tomatoes I've ever found came from a fruit-and-veg shop in Rome run by an ex-communist party functionary; though sound on Lenin's sins, he, too, was a tomato snob, claiming that only tomatoes grown on decayed lava soil near Naples have a sufficiently intense flavour.

This may be nonsense, for the tomato is an eminently adaptable plant, and is now classed by the EU as a 'world vegetable' (and so probably the subject of a thick book of rules and regulations). …

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