SETTING OF THE SUNDRIED

FOOD & DRINK In Britain, sundried tomatoes, once the height of foodie r efinement, have declined into a joke. And all this time, sophisticated Italians didn't even eat them. Now they do. Michael Bateman reports

NOW here's a funny thing. sundried tomatoes come from Italy, but until this year we have been eating more here than they do in Italy. It was Britain, not Italy, which raised world consciousness of this gastronomic little nonsense.

We've been downing a phenomenal million and half jars a year, a figure that only this year do the Italians expect to match. How should this be? Anna del Conte, the leading Italian cookery writer in Britain, is not surprised. "Until a year or two ago people in north Italy had never heard of sudried tomatoes, let alone eaten them. It was a home-made speciality enjoyed solely in the south."

The world's major processor of sudried tomatoes, SACLA (Societa Anonima Commerciale Lavarazione Alimentari) - which is based in Asti, in the north - can explain. They started bottling them originally to satisfy the appetites of Britons living in Tuscany, the denizens of Chianti-shire. Where had these expatriates encountered them? Not in Italy, but in fashionable "Cal- Ital" (Califor-nian-Italian) restaurants in London.

So it was that in the late 1980s, like the Roman legions of 55BC, sun- dried tomatoes invaded our shores with a terrible suddenness. One day we had never heard of them, the next they had reached into every corner of our lives, on to our pizzas, into our sauces, flavouring our ciabatta bread.

Sainsbury's were first to be colonised, other enclaves collapsed very quickly. The sundried tomato was received so quickly into the national consciousness that there was hardly time for them to be fashionable before trend-setters were rejecting them furiously. Nico Ladenis, the renowned London three-star chef, memorably declared in an American Express advertisement: "I have never used a sundried tomato."

Sally Clarke, whose restaurant, Clarke's, in Notting Hill Gate was selected 1995 Restaurant of the Year by the Hotel and Caterer, has been credited with introducing them to the London restaurant stage. She first encountered them in the Mediterran-ean-style restaurants of California and often presents them as appetisers, perhaps wrapped around an anchovy. But she recoils in horror at the suggestion she is responsible for their popularity here. "They've been over-used and abused. I have even seen sundried tomato ice cream."

Her peers, Antony Worrall-Thompson and Alastair Little, added them to their repertoires. But Alastair Little was quick to recant: "Many of the brands are literally disgusting, with a leathery texture and a rank taste," he says in his book, Keep it Simple which he wrote with Richard Whittington (published by Conran Octopus, pounds 18.99). He advocates drying your own - in the oven - and then preserving them in good olive oil (see below for his method).

Italians in London are amused to see the British tying themselves in knots trying to decide if these traditional items from the south Italian peasant larder are U or Non-U. In his Covent Garden store, Antonio Carluccio, the cookery writer, sells sundried tomatoes in seasoned oil. He uses them as a savoury spread on bread or toast as a snack. What he can't support are sundried tomatoes preserved not in oil but sold dry in packets. Those from California are sure to have been oven-dried. Those from Turkey may be sundried, but unfortunately drenched in sulphur dioxide preservative. It is impossible to reconstitute them to achieve good texture or flavour. Give them a miss, he advises.

There's all the difference in the world between the tomato sold for the table in the UK (spring, summer, autumn, winter, regardless of season) and the thick-fleshed, dense plum tomato cropped only in the month of August in the south of Italy. I went to see them beginning the harvest four weeks ago in Puglia. There, due to premium prices now offered for them, growers have been increasing the size of crops devoted to the sun- dried item, instead of sending them for canning and pastes.

Puglia has always been known as arid land, suited to olives, pines, carob gum trees, almonds and grape vines, which do not need to drink much to slake their thirsts. And tomatoes. The Spanish introduced the tomato here in the 1500s (Puglia was then under Spanish rule). Contrary to what one might expect, the harder the tomato has to work for its nutrients, the better its flavour.

However, when you fly into Bari, capital of the province, you may be surprised to see the landscape is not dry at all. No one has told you of the Italian miracle that eclipses a thousand tales of weeping madonnas. Ten years ago they struck water in Puglia, water more precious than gold.

Thanks to sonar scanning equipment and modern drilling techniques they located an unimagined source of water 700 metres down, nearly half a mile below the land surface. Irrigation of this mineral-rich soil now allows them a succession of hitherto non-existent crops: celery, artichokes, green and red peppers, courgettes (since we're in Italy, we should say zucchini), spinach, Swiss chard and so on.

The landscape is blossoming with green crops, and the farmers are blooming with undreamt-of wealth. Particularly sought-after as second homes are stone hovels called trulli, like cone beehives and originally built by North Africans about the year 1,000. Until this water boom they stood idle, used for storage or sheltering animals. Now they are to the Italian townie what the thatched cottage is to his British equivalent. A group of four trulli, bunched together and modernised after a fashion, will fetch pounds 120,000.

So, on to the prime tomato fields around San Pietro Vernotico, where the tomato farmer Angelo Marangio grows for SACLA. He deploys his picking teams in temperatures hitting the mid 90s, about 34C (just like our summer this year, in other words).

It's hot. Very hot. Last year the technologist from Marks & Spencer made his appearance in the picking fields, said Signor Marangio, still wearing his West End office suit, trousers rolled up to his knees to afford some ventilation.

The pickers here are a dozen ladies aged from 17 to 75 (that's Gina enjoying a new surge of life as a picker now that there are all-the-year-round crops). Unlike their British counterparts who strip down in the sun, these folk dress up; they are mummified in cocoons of linen, rolled in bales of cotton. They have peaked caps or wear scarves, thick boots, and protective gloves since tomato plants can be surprisingly prickly.

In England, under glass, tomatoes climb like vines. Here they straggle on the ground, barely reaching a foot in height. At the centre of each plant there are clusters of huge, elongated, oval fruit with pinched ends. These varieties are Incas and San Marzano, with thick flesh, few pips and little juice, the plum tomatoes traditionally sold for canning. In the old days the leaves would be going yellow and brown in the dry and dusty heat by now, but in modern Puglia each tomato plant has its own customised plumbing. A thin black hose runs the length of every row, supplying it with steady droplets of water; literally drop by drop, goccia a goccia.

Gina and her companions root out the luscious red crop. Tomatoes are packed into plastic boxes and driven to the drying factory a couple of miles away, an enclosure vigorously fortified against the region's insects. Blue-clad ladies cut the tomatoes in half and lay them out on mesh trays to drain and dry. Their insides exposed, they look like so many pink prawns. They are sprinkled with salt, two kilograms to every 100kg of tomatoes, to aid drying. This will take one to two days in intense heat, three to four if it's milder.

It never rains, they explain. Puglia has the lowest rainfall in Italy. However, as we stand here, the skies blacken. Thunder rolls. Lightning rends the sky, and a tropical thunderstorm crashes down. Hysterically laughing, the young women rush the trays under shelter.

When drying resumes the tomatoes, which are 98 per cent water, will lose all but 16 per cent of their moisture. At this stage they are transported rapidly by freight container to the processing plant in Asti, where they can be stored in refrigeration until needed for bottling.

Back in the factory, they are partly rehydrated and soaked in vinegary water for three hours, which removes most of the salt. Then they are bottled in oil seasoned with herbs. (You can replicate the process at home using packets of dried tomatoes).

The peasant in the south will use olive oil. But to ensure its keeping quality the commercial product is pasteurised for 45 minutes, so they use a good sunflower oil, which lends itself better to heat treatment (plus some extra virgin olive oil for flavour). The Italians are not fussy about this and it's not a problem to them, using sunflower oil rather than fashionable olive oil. For one thing, it doesn't affect the flavour, they say, because the oil doesn't soak into the tomatoes. Its function is as a preservative. In any case, you drain the tomatoes before eating them. You must judge for yourselves. But you don't have to take their word for it, because you've probably eaten a darn sight more sundried tomatoes than the average Italian.

Has the sundried tomato got a future - or is it a flash in the pan? In Britain we are no different from the Mediterraneans in our passion for rasping flavours: they have their black olives, capers, garlic mayonnaise (aioli), anchovies and salt cod pastes. Our tastes may reflect the northern climate but are no less forceful; think of HP sauce, tomato ketchup, piccalilli, patum peperium, Marmite, Worcester sauce. The sun-dried tomato is in perfect company.

OVEN-DRIED TOMATOES

This is Alastair Little's recipe from his book Keep It Simple.

16 ripe plum tomatoes

4 tablespoons olive oil

salt

1 teaspoon caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 300F/150C/Gas 2 and drizzle olive oil over two baking trays. Cut the tomatoes into halves from stem to stern.

Slide the knife round the inside of of each half to remove pulp and pips, leaving you with something that resembles a small boat.

Arrange the tomato halves on the trays so they're not touching. Dribble a little more oil over the top and sprinkle sparingly with the salt and caster sugar.

Put in the oven for about 45 minutes. Remove and leave to cool.

Pack in jars and cover with good olive oil. They may be stored for a few months without refrigeration as long as jars are scrupulously clean and the tomatoes well covered with oil. !

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