Two years ago, when I went to interview the chef Juan Arzak in San Sebastian, he lectured: "A perfectly ripe tomato that has never seen the inside of a fridge, and has been left to ripen on the vine, is a food far superior to lobster. Do you understand?" Some time later, Ferran Adrià said pretty much the same thing, as did Martín Berastegui and Andoni Aduritz (San Sebastian's other über-chefs). My conclusion being that among Spain's top chefs, at least, the tomato reigns supreme.
Sadly, that's rarely the case in some other places like the States and Britain. But even here in Spain, the supermarkets and grocery store stock an increasingly bland selection of year-round tomatoes born of the plastic green-houses that lurk along the coast of Almeria. To get a good, locally grown one, you pay through the nose.
Part of the problem with tomatoes stems from the fact that we increasingly shop for convenience and that means monster production. The greenhouses of Almeria can be seen from space, but the money we save in consuming these hard, flavourless, force-ripened tomatoes are paid for in spades by those who farm them.
As a frequent visitor to Andalucia, I have been shocked and saddened by the sight of seas of plastic, shimmering across the baked Almerian landscape—already practically a desert—and up into the Alpujarra. More disturbing is the plight of the workers.
Immigrants coming over on small fishing boats from North Africa to work in Almeria's second sea, suffer the most appalling conditions while working for far below the minimum wage. They live in squalor, often without running water, proper toilets or electricity. As if that wasn't bad enough, rumours abound of serious health issues such as horrendous skin diseases, miscarriages, breast and testicular cancers probably caused by working for prolonged periods beneath the toxic plastic.
The official line is that the ethylene gas the plastic emits is benign. But you can't argue with the 40 kilos of pesticides and herbicides that are applied to every of hectare of greenhouse. Or, the fact that the greenhouses of southern Spain appear in the United Nation's Atlas of Environmental Change, which documents the effect on planet Earth of deforestation, climate change and urbanisation.
The mind boggles at the potentially harmful effects of actually eating this stuff, and while scientists at Granada University Hospital are making clear links between the greenhouses and the diseases, it could be too late for many by the time anything is proved. While the construction workers who build the greenhouses and the landowners get rich—Almeria exports some 2.5 million tons of greenhouse-grown vegetables a year—the price paid environmentally and in human terms must surely make buying local worth every penny.
With this in mind, there's still no arguing with the fact that without tomatoes Spain's cooks would be at a loss, whether you're talking a simple tomato salad for lunch, a gazpacho shot by an enthusiastic home cook, or a globe of translucent tomato gel in the hands of a superstar chef.
Generally, it is agreed that the first tomatoes to arrive in Europe from the new world, probably came via Seville in the early 16th-century, at that time an important trade-link for Italian merchants. And the large, irregularly shaped, and very expensive tomatoes such as Montserrat or Raf, are among the oldest of the many varieties now available in Spain.
The smaller, smoother, spherical type probably didn't arrive until the 18th-century and were popularly as the 'love apple', poma amoris in Latin. However, as the fruit itself become more popular as a food, its name was usurped by the less romantic tomate. By the mid-19th century, the varieties spanned several shapes and sizes ranging ribbed, hunch-backed tomatoes to pear-shaped cherry tomatoes; and the colours range from yellow through orange and pink, to black. Today there are literally thousands of varieties out there.
Botanically a berry, Catalan-grown tomatoes are particularly prized, described in glowing terms by Patience Gray in her book, Honey From a Weed: "Salad tomatoes in Greece and Catalonia seem to be of different race," she wrote, "larger, firmer, tasting like fruit. They are always used green, with only the faintest tinge of pink, in salads. Crisp in texture, they are perfumed and sweet."
She was seconded by cookery writer Elizabeth Luard in her book, The Food of Spain and Portugal. She wrote: "These are no ordinary tomatoes. They are tomatoes as they ought to taste, with chewy flesh, sweet, thick juice of remarkable viscosity, and an astonishing fragrance."
Presumably both are referring to Montserrat tomatoes, though neither specify. When pa amb tomàquet is pretty much the national dish, you begin to understand why getting your hands on a good one is so important. And, knowing what to do with them and how to store them also goes a long way to bringing out their best.
Once a tomato has been cut or sliced, its bright, perfumed flavour quickly diminishes, by about 50 percent in fact, hence the need to serve and eat them immediately. Refrigerators are also bad news, leaching out flavour and turning them mushy. Warmth and sunlight is what tomatoes really like—the crinkled, pruney looking ones that you see strung together in bushels in the markets and that are used for pa amb tomàquet are packed with succulent sweetness and deeply concentrated flavour—constituting a massive part of what we actually taste.
For salads, opt for extremes of big or small, Montserrats or cherries are best, while cooked tomatoes benefits from the high acidity of plum tomatoes. Expect to pay about €4.50 a kilo for good, locally grown toms, and if that makes you balk, consider the real price of the cheap ones.
Quick guide to tomatoes
Montserrat or Rosa tomatoes are irregular shaped, rather like the saw-toothed mountain of Montserrat with pinkish flesh. They are large, squat and firm textured, with little pulp and large, hollow recesses within their walls, making them excellent for slicing in salads. The taste is fresh, sweet and subtle, and it has low acidity. European legislation prevents the sale of anything genetically modified so you can be sure that your tomato is the real deal. Most are grown in the Vallès Oriental, planted in May and harvested starting in July.
Raf tomatoes are an ancient Almerian variety that has recently been reintroduced with great success, selling for up to €12 per kilo. Like the Montserrat, it is irregular shaped, but is generally smaller, red-fleshed with green tiger stripes from the stem end to about halfway down. It is intensely flavoured, deeply aromatic and nicknamed the 'pata negra' of tomatoes. Chefs rave about them, but yes, the majority do still come from Almerian greenhouses.
Kumato tomatoes are small, dark-red to purple, juicy and flavourful. They are being grown successfully in the north of Spain, particularly in Asturias, and have a deep, earthy flavour. They are more difficult to find here, but worth buying if you come across them. They are particularly good when roasted.
Pa amb tomàquet
Grill two thick slices of crumbly textured, thick crusted pa da pagès (country bread). Cut a juicy clove of garlic in half rub across the top of the bread. Follow by slicing a tomate maduro (sun-ripened and juicy) in half and rubbing on top of the garlic. Sprinkle with sea salt and drizzle with good quality, fruity olive oil. Add anchovies, jamón, cheese or even sliced ripe figs, for a satisfying lunch.
The world's biggest tomato fight takes place at the end of August every year in Buñol, Valencia. Two hundred tonnes of tomatoes are thrown, drowning the plazas in a slurry thick, red tomato juice, deep enough to wallow in.