Home and Garden
What a cracker of a summer. If this is global warming, bring it on, I say.
It's what I call a salad summer, when all you want to eat is salads. Apart from cooks on absurd television reality shows, who'd want to be inside cooking over a hot stove in this kind of weather?
Our salad of choice this summer is the predictably satisfying Greek classic of tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, olives, feta, a sprinkle of rigani (oregano) over the top and, of course, lashings of olive oil. Teamed with fresh, crusty bread, it's heaven in a bowl to me, especially when I can pick my own tomatoes.
I'm a tomato addict from way back. I love not only the fruit but also the unique smell from the aromatic foliage. It's a peculiarly summer smell. If you buy tomatoes out of season, you never get the same smell sensation you get from the foliage and a freshly picked, ripe tomato.
And, curiously enough, scientists say the tomato's appeal is based not only on taste (of sugars and acids) but, more importantly than they realised, on smell. Tomatoes give off volatile (so named because they easily vaporise, releasing molecules into the air) compounds that add hugely to a tomato's flavour appeal.
Different varieties give off different volatiles and different combinations of volatiles. Interestingly, heirloom varieties that were around before bog-standard commercial varieties were developed show huge diversity in their volatile compounds.
Researchers identified the volatiles to find out what makes one type of tomato more appealing than another, with the prospect of reintroducing the appealing characteristics into commonly grown commercial varieties.
Chemical analysis and taste testing of different varieties revealed a short list of just 12 compounds common to flavour intensity, and another 12 for sweetness, of which eight were found to be important for overall flavour.
In other words, while there may be a huge diversity of compounds in different tomatoes, there are only a few key compounds that consistently dictate appeal.
The researchers also found that our perception of sweetness in a tomato is influenced by some of the volatile compounds. What we smell makes tomatoes seem to taste sweet, independent of the sugars present. The intriguing potential for breeders and growers is apparently that the sweet smell and taste compounds could be bred into other foods to satisfy consumer preferences for ever-sweeter foods that don't have the health-damaging high sugar content.
I know how easy it is to slag off "supermarket" or "commercial" varieties as lacking flavour, compared to homegrown or organic produce - but in defence of growers, most will tell you how challenging it is to meet commercial realities and consumer expectations. Buyers want the perfect nearly ripe or just ripe tomato, even if it comes from the other end of the country or - shock, horror - from across the Tasman.
Then there's the issue of packaging, to protect your tomatoes from handling damage, and the necessity to ensure each pack is exactly the same weight. It's a marketing nightmare, and one reason why commercial varieties are bred for consistent size and packaging.
If you're a do-it-yourself type, this only adds to the appeal of growing your own tomatoes. This year, I've been trying a few new varieties.
One is a large, round variety called Marmande, which I managed to import (legally) with me from a trip to Greece, where it's the popular type used in salads. The second is a Tuscan variety, Pomodoro (Tomato) Di Parma, from seed importers Italian Seeds Pronto.
The third is a new cherry type named Tomaccio, readily available at garden centres and also recommended for drying.
All three have been great producers but, despite the incredible summer, mine have been a bit slow to ripen, mostly because I planted them where they don't get enough sun hours. In desperation, I've picked some to ripen them inside and left the rest to vine ripen.
But what's interesting is their flavour. Although it's a French heirloom variety, Marmande tastes like I recall it in Greek salads in Greece. It has a firm "meaty" texture and slices superbly, but is also quite sweet and lacks the satisfying acidity I prefer in a salad tomato.
The lyrically named Pomodoro Di Parma (new to New Zealand, from the Parma region of Emilia-Romagna in Italy) has the most amazing convoluted shape and an appealingly intense flavour, proving good for pasta sauces, but still lacks acidity.
Lastly, the Tomaccio has proved to be an interesting experiment. Bred from wild Peruvian varieties and billed as a "one of the sweetest tomatoes you've ever tasted", it certainly lives up to its promise, ripening at a brix (the sugar content) of 14 - more than the popular Sweet 100 cherry tomato, which has just 12.
While the sweetness may indeed be actual, rather than imagined, I have to admit that I still prefer my tomatoes to have that distinctive acid tomato taste.
Rather than making them sweeter, or even seeming sweeter, I want my tomatoes to have a bit of bite and character, to give my summer salads a real kick.
And, given the national and global concerns about obesity and consumer cravings for ever-sweeter foods, even if they just seem sweeter, I can't help but wonder if the acidity of tomatoes has other benefits.
Bitter flavours in foods such as dandelion greens, rocket and sorrel have long been recognised by the French as valuable stimulants for digestive juices and enzymes. It may just be that we would benefit from less, not more, sweetness in our foods, especially our tomatoes, for a healthy, long life.
Compare styles. Although the tourist take on Greek salad may be found in restaurants throughout the country, an authentic Greek salad is not only made from produce picked fresh and still warm from the garden, but also with the addition of purslane greens and a sprinkle of only the best rigani (oregano) from the mountains.
You can, of course, make your own version, but if you can get it or grow it, try adding a few sprigs of fresh purslane for that authentic touch – and always add the feta as a slab or chunks on top, never chopped as chunks through the salad. Drizzle the lot with just olive oil, then sprinkle the dried oregano over the top. Delicious!