In celebration of the single ingredient

Vine tomatoes on  a marble table

Grand Dishes author and member Anastasia Miari champions the simple pleasure of homegrown tomatoes

By Anastasia Miari Mon, Jul 13, 2020

GREECE – Trapped in an inner-city apartment during isolation, away from the smallholding I travelled to each spring to plant the summer’s bounty, I didn’t agonise over when I’d next go to the pub. My inner turmoil was, in fact, over tomatoes. Good, home-grown tomatoes.

For as long as I can remember, I have planted and picked tomatoes on the Greek island of Corfu (where I spent my formative years) with my grandmother, ‘Yiayia’. At the age of six, I was ordered to inspect the fruits pre-picking, and off I’d go, barefoot into the soft clay of our garden to sniff out the juiciest tomatoes.

Feeling important with the responsibility of choosing the tomatoes that would make up the day’s Greek salad, I took my job very seriously. I’d lift up the vines, then hover, eye level with each ripe fruit. I’d select only the plumpest red baubles, breathing in their verdant summer scent in anticipation of a burst of sweet, citric flavour.
Woman picking tomatoes
Plates of chopped tomatoes and cucumber
Woman standing in garden

‘Homegrown tomatoes taste of sunshine and have the sweetness of a summer fling; a brief moment of brightness that, although fleeting, leaves a lasting memory nonetheless’

In the early days, and as is commonplace with Greek mothers, Yiayia was wary and in constant competition with my own English mother. As I dragged my bag of salad swag back from the garden into the kitchen, she would claim loudly, ‘We have the real tomatoes here – you don’t get tomatoes like this over there in England. Over there, they use chemicals and everything is tasteless and artificial.’

Two decades later and she’s still humming to the same tune – even out of earshot of my mother. I’ve grown to share her sentiment. Supermarket tomatoes don’t cut it, so I refused to buy them during lockdown.

It’s been found that organic, homegrown tomatoes have a substantially higher concentration of antioxidants than the mass-produced, supermarket variety. Not only that – they have so much more character. In Greece, ours grow to different shapes and sizes. What might be an anomaly at a British or American grocery store, with its gradients of yellow and orange, and the odd black spot or crack, is entirely normal for homegrown Mediterranean bounty.

The planting, growing and harvesting process itself was enough to have me looking wistfully out of the window, willing a pandemic away for the sake of my summer salads and my sanity. Gardening in lockdown – for those with gardens – has been a lifeline. 

Getting out and into nature has proven to decrease stress and anxiety, but studies have now also linked soil bacteria with stress resilience. Soil bacteria can actually activate serotonin (our natural ‘happy’ chemical) in the brain. It’s no surprise I’m at my most relaxed when getting my hands dirty in my grandmother’s vegetable patch each spring, then.

At times of crisis, like the one we face right now, the issues with our food supply and weak links in a global supply chain are revealed. Home deliveries of our groceries were scarce. Importing became an issue. Even food grown in the UK had no one to harvest it, leading to Prince Charles’ baffling national call-out for fruit and veg pickers. 

What if we all just grew our own? Homegrown tomatoes taste of sunshine. They have the sweetness of a summer fling; a brief moment of brightness that, although fleeting, leaves a lasting memory nonetheless. They are the symbol of the Mediterranean. Planted in spring and watered lovingly and with diligence through to August and the autumn months, they take on the very essence of summer. Postbox-red fruits ripen on sturdy vines.

Two women standing in a white doorway
An assortment of tomatoes in different shapes and sizes

‘So impressive is the home-grown tomato that Nobel Prize winners have written poems about it. In his own Ode To Tomatoes, Pablo Neruda elevates the humblest, most universal ingredient to superfood standards’

In Mediterranean cuisine, the tomato takes centre stage. Giant beef ones were the packed-lunch staple of my high-school years. Being from a Greek family, I would be weighed down with remnants of the previous night’s tray of yemista. My lunch box was filled, not with your standard ham sandwich and chocolate biscuit bar, but with a hefty, rice-filled tomato. Seasoned with oregano and thyme, then topped with feta and Yiayia’s olive oil and baked in the oven, the flavours of Greece exploded out of my Tupperware box.

Even after we had moved from Corfu to the UK, we observed tomato-growing season – my dad and I taking years of trial and error in our garden’s greenhouse, while the heavens pounded the glass of its warm, earthy confines. ‘You need to really work for good-tasting tomatoes,’ Yiayia’s words would echo, as we eventually reaped the fruits of our labour – not as bounteous as in Corfu, but satisfying nonetheless.

So impressive is the home-grown tomato that Nobel Prize winners have written poems about it. In his own Ode To Tomatoes, Pablo Neruda elevates the humblest, most universal ingredient to superfood standards. To Neruda, the tomato is the star of the show; an essential that ties all flavours together and punctuates whatever lesser ingredient is thrown into the mix.

Quite rightly, the tomato stars in menus and on lunch tables all over the world, from India to Europe and across the Atlantic where it originated, in the Americas. What would a classic Spaghetti Pomodoro (Italian for ‘golden apple’) be without its rich tomatoes? Or margherita pizza, for that matter? The Spanish ‘pan con tomate’ would just be ‘pan.’ Yiayia’s Greek salad certainly would not be what it is, had those first tiny seeds not crossed oceans from the Andes to Europe in the 16th century.

With the easing of European lockdown comes the ability to travel. My hands will be back in Greek soil, nurturing nature’s greatest gift to my palette. And I’ve made a vow. Before next time (and there will be a next time), I’m planting my own at home. Windowsills, balconies, indoor hydroponics – whatever it takes. Raising something from seed is now a radical, political act. It’s a ‘no’ to dependency on profit-hungry global corporations. It’s a way of claiming back the earth.
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