Tomatoes are the most evocative of all fruits for me. Just the thought of them transports me to a moment in summer. There is a stall on the road to La Rochelle called l’Oasis, and it is exactly that; an oasis of seasonally ripe fruit and vegetables. At the end of summer 5kg crates of tomatoes, bursting with ripeness, will be on sale for a few Euros. This is the time for preserving.
Shelves groan with the weight of row upon row of preserving jars, filled with intense tomato sauce, in the barns of our farmer neighbours, preserving not only the fruit but also the giddy warm atmosphere of late September. These tomatoes are misshapen, multi-coloured and brimming with flavour. When they are this ripe, it is clear that the tomato is a fruit, though I never seriously considered that to be so until we moved to live in France.
We were recently given a jar of homemade Confiture de Tomates Vertes Épicées. The words “jam” and “tomato” combined made me think of it as a relish or pickle. I tried it with cheese, as I would a pickle, and it was not a success. It was, in fact, a sweet jam made from fresh tomatoes. How diametrically opposed to this is an intense tomato sauce, lubricated with plenty of good olive oil and reduced until it is a different sort of sticky jam. The sort of jam that begs to have some fresh pasta stirred through it and Parmesan cheese grated over it, creating that magical, failsafe combination of cheese and tomato.
I think of Coeur de Boeuf tomatoes as a sort of vegetarian charcuterie. Slicing into such a tomato does not release a gush of seeds and water. Each slice is like a piece of bright red meat. Just lay some of these slices in a low earthenware bowl, and season them well with sea salt, ground black pepper and a good glug of olive oil. No need to add vinegar. Leave them for an hour to imbibe the flavours, and sprinkle with some torn up basil leaves just before serving. I remember eating pasta in Positano whose sauce had simply been made by crushing tiny pomodorini into a pan of melting garlic and chilies.
When I think of the Basque region I remember that Pipérade is amongst my favourite comfort foods. The basic mixture of eggs, tomatoes and peppers is slowly cooked into a savoury scramble and seasoned with piment d’Espelette. Were you to debate with a Basque the correct ingredients and correct method of cooking Pipérade it would be your brains that would become scrambled.
According to the Marseillais a good bouillabaisse demands 10 “tomates mûres” which gives the soup its wonderful reddish-orange colour, and adds sweet notes to this amazing dish. Tomatoes simply cored, peeled and whizzed in a food processor with lemon juice, olive oil and salt provide the perfect chilled summer soup. A sea bream roasted “en papillote” with cherry tomatoes only needs the addition of a few black olives to create a visual and gustatory treat. I would find my cooking and, in consequence, my life less enjoyable without the taste and colour of the fabled “pomme d’amour”.
For me there is an inextricable link between the sun and tomatoes. Towards the end of each summer I lay out trays of halved tomatoes to bake in the sun for a couple of days. The result is enormously rewarding. Tomatoes dried like this are transformed into mouthwatering confits that are perfect accompaniments to all forms of outdoor eating, or just delicious with olives, almonds and a glass of wine. Those that survive this gluttony are carefully preserved in olive oil to act as a reminder of the heat of sun until it returns the following year.
Roger Stowell’s website: www.rogerstowell.com
Food photography workshops: www.camerahols.com
Roger’s food Blog: http://stowell.wordpress.com
Roger Stowell is an international food photographer. After a traditional boarding school education, he immediately left home to seek his fortune. After several years of acquainting himself with the world, from which boarding school had so efficiently shielded him, he returned home, penniless and ill, to a less than heartfelt welcome. Due to his mother’s diligence at searching for some sort of talent in the boy, he was accepted by Portsmouth College of Art where he enrolled to study for a DipAD in fine art and filmmaking. Having already tasted the delights of the capital’s fleshpots, he quickly found both the course and Portsmouth to be equally tedious. As chance would have it an acquaintance, from those seemingly wasted years, was now a leading London fashion photographer in need of an assistant. His tutor at art school breathed a sigh of relief and advised him with these sage words “Why play houses when you can do the real thing?” He took the advice and was soon in London assisting the multi talented Clive Arrowsmith who taught him more about creativity and photography in a year than he could ever have learnt in dreary Portsmouth in a lifetime. By 1968 Roger had set up as photographer in his own right. Over the following years he worked with most of the major magazines such as Elle, Marie Claire, Red, Olive the colour supplements of the Times, Observer and Telegraph and many more. He illustrated books such as Anna del Conte’s “The Classic Food of Northern Italy”, Vatcharin Bhumichitr’s “ Vatch’s Thai Cooking”, Terence Conran’s “Gastrodome” and a host of others. During the 90’s he joined Julian Seddon Films with whom he directed TV commercials for Nestle, Masterfoods, Kellogs and Danone. In 2001 he managed to persuade Jenny, his wife, to move from the pleasures of London to a tiny farming hamlet in the South Vendee, which was devoid of pleasure. Luckily, over the last 10 years, they have found great happiness in France where they run food photography courses from their home whilst Roger continues to take pictures and to write. Roger’s Blog: http://stowell.wordpress.com Roger’s website: www.rogerstowell.com and Roger’s food photography courses: www.camerahols.com