Tomato, the Best Cook

"Tomato is the best cook", my grandmother used to say, meaning that by simply adding it to any food, tomato had the power to make it exceptional.

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My paternal grandmother, born around 1875, had probably heard stories from her elders about the much-admired, rare plant that produced "golden apples" chryssomila, as tomatoes were called then, translating from the Italian 'pomodori'. People find the fact that tomatoes only became part of the Greek everyday table in the late 19th century unbelievable. They wonder how our ancestors cooked the summer “ladera”, the ubiquitous vegetable and olive oil stews, without tomato. In these dishes the fruity and strong Greek olive oil is perfectly balanced by the slightly acidic taste of tomato, in a marriage of flavours that we now take for granted. The late adoption of the tomato also explains why some Greek cooks often over-use them, drowning foods with a thick, oily red sauce that covers the flavours of all other ingredients.


A brief history

The tomato plant was introduced to mainland Greece in 1815. That year, the story goes, Paul d' Yvrai, the French father-superior of the Capuchins' monastery in Plaka, an old picturesque Athenian neighbourhood below the Acropolis, brought tomato seeds, together with other grains and bulbs for flowers, to decorate the lovely garden of the famous monastery. Incidentally Lord Byron stayed in this monastery, in 1812. The red fruits of the plant were much admired and the seeds quickly found their way to a French family’s vegetable garden in Patissia – an Athenian suburb, in those days.


According to another version of the story, it was the French family, with connections to Marseille, that brought the seeds of the tomato, and gave some to the Capuchin monks. These were difficult years. Greece was still under Ottoman domination until 1821, when the war of independence started, so people had other priorities. In 1833, when the Bavarian prince Otto came to Greece as king after Independence, we read that Mr. Fry, a high ranking official, saw some "golden apples” on the island of Poros, and suggested that this rare beautiful plant should immediately be cultivated in Athens. Keep in mind that in those days, the Greek state ended about 200 kilometers north of Athens, and the only islands that belonged to it were the Cyclades.


The first Greek language cookbook, a translation from an Italian one, was published in 1827, not in Athens, but on the island of Syros. In it we find two recipes that use "golden apples"; the first is "Fried golden apples": Tomatoes are halved, emptied from half of their flesh, stuffed with chopped liver and lots of spices, dipped in egg, dredged on breadcrumbs, and fried.  The second recipe, a "sauce for eggs", contains salted sardines, onions, parsley, basil, tomato and fish stock. We can, therefore, conclude that tomatoes were, by then, available in Syros.


But of course, a rare few - if any - Greek women were able to read this cook book, so most were trying to figure out what to do with the new fruit. Some, thought it similar to the eggplant and even called it Frankish eggplant for a while. In a kitchen ledger probably written  in the early 1890s by a lady from the Ionian island of Ithaca, I found a strange version of moussaka, that has sliced and fried tomatoes, instead of eggplants.


Flavoursome tomatoes, cultivated naturally, under the Mediterranean sun, now reach the Greek markets in mid June. Throughout the summer, up until October in most parts of the country, “ypethries” (open air) tomatoes are wonderfully meaty, juicy and aromatic. At the “laiki”, the farmer’s markets of Athens and other Greek cities, lots of different, larger or smaller tomatoes, cultivated in the mainland or in the islands fill the stands. Sophisticated cooks favour the intensely flavoured, yet rare, small tomatoes from the islands, especially those of Santorini, that grow in the dry and sandy soil of the volcanic island. The texture of Santori tomatoes is dense, and they make the most exquisite tomato paste.


Buy tomatoes when they are at their best and cheapest, and never refrigerate them. Keep them in a basket, stem side up, adding new ones if your basket begins to empty. Even inferior tomatoes ripen and become flavourful this way. Use the firm ones for salads, and the softer or blemished ones for sauces and stews.


In many Greek recipes tomato pulp is specified in the list of ingredients. Although you can use good quality, tinned diced tomatoes, I suggest that you freeze fresh, grated tomatoes in the summer. When tomatoes are cheap and flavourful, divide their pulp in cup-size packets, to have at hand throughout the year. Winter greenhouse tomatoes are no substitute for the summer ones, and the wonderfully simple vegetable, chicken or meat stews are infinitely better with the fresh or frozen pulp of summer tomatoes.

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