Last spring I found myself in Mallorca, consulting for a Spanish restaurant group. The accommodation was stunning. An apartment literally overhanging the craggy rocks of the Mediterranean coast on the Bay of Palma, windows on every side. The open kitchen gazed out to a sparkling sea and the sound of waves crashing was constant.
I anticipated evenings spent watching the Russian oligarchs playing on their yachts from my eagle's eyrie while exploring the delights of the local ingredients, and took it as a given that this would include some fabulous tomatoes.
Not so. An early shopping trip came as a disappointment: an entire aisle dedicated to uninviting, rock-hard specimens that shamed the name, while on subsequent shopping trips, disappointment turned to disbelief. Here, in the perfect climate for growing tomatoes, was an experience every bit as miserable as shopping for "classic" tomatoes in the middle of the British winter. Especially since one of my treasured memories of Southern Europe is of the big, misshapen tomatoes piled high in markets that are such a treat of holidaying there.
As I tried to digest their indigestible tomatoes, what really came home to me was that my disappointment was not so much to do with the dire state of tomato-growing in Mallorca, as how my own values have been coloured by tomato-growing in Britain. During recent years the range and quality of tomatoes we now take for granted has made us truly spoilt. The coming months will see industry leaders such as Marks & Spencer and Waitrose stocking some 80 per cent British-grown tomatoes.
As it was, my passion for Palma cooled pretty quickly. Love in a warm climate without fabulous tomatoes was never going to be a goer.
So here we are, damp and more often a little chilly in the midst of summer. But why go away when the bruschettas and pa amb oli are so much better at home?
Foreign vs homegrown
We all have memories of stunningly good tomatoes, big gnarled specimens with ridges like the folds on a mountain. They dripped juices when you cut into them and were bought from an open market and warmed by the sun on holidays in Italy and southern France.
These are no redder for being seen through rose-tinted specs, they really were that good. Picked locally when perfectly ripe, it is unlikely they would ever have seen a refrigerator, having only travelled down the road.
And then, of course, there are those apocryphal Sicilian tomatoes, starved of water and love, that are dripping with juices and flavour. As Gerry Hayman, of the British Tomato Growers' Association, explains: "By treating them hard and keeping them short of water, the fruit is smaller but with the same level of flavour components." It may not make the greatest business plan for those intent on yield, but it does at least clear up that anomaly.
The flip side of this coin is our experience of the tasteless and colourless bullets imported from Spain and Morocco that are all too often the norm during the winter months. The likelihood is that these are varieties that have been developed to withstand the four to five days of transport in a refrigerated lorry and were picked too early and will never ripen.
This is not to write off all out-of-season imports; there are plenty of excellent tomatoes grown in Spain, Portugal and Sicily, but they tend to be the smaller varieties such as the cocktail, cherry and baby plum tomatoes that have more flavour by rights. A good default buying system is to stick to smaller varieties during the winter months when they are imported, and to save enjoying "classic" or "beef" tomatoes once the UK season is in full swing from April onwards.
On or off the vine?
What exactly are we buying into here? The term "vine-ripened" seems to have been coined as a useful marketing tool, as presumably all tomatoes are vine-ripened, otherwise how do they grow? Perhaps to sell them "on the vine" is a more accurate description of the true state of play.
And we are all for the sight of vine and calyx. These are the first parts of the plant to deteriorate and their presence and vivacity suggests the tomatoes are truly fresh. The second plus here is the heady Jo Malone-type fragrance they afford the fruits, the slightly steamy hit of a greenhouse on a warm summer's day, full of tomato plants with fruits in various stages of ripening belonging to that keen gardener friend.
Little and large
The individuality of tomatoes is only to be celebrated, and you cannot have too many shapes, sizes and quirks. Come the summer, a plate or bowl filled with tomatoes in shades of red, yellow and orange is a real treat. But it doesn't make the ever-broadening categorisation easy for the cook. Put your Dr Seuss hat on, because I can offer you "cherry tomatoes, cocktail tomatoes and classic tomatoes, baby plum tomatoes, midi plum tomatoes and large plum tomatoes, or perhaps you would like beefsteak, and is that on or off the vine?" Which is before you've negotiated the olive oil section.
One very noticeable aspect of our preference is the prevalence of cherry and cocktail types. The latter rather neatly fill the gap between "cherry" and "classic", and they are a winner, with all the flavour of the former and the fleshiness of the latter. Cherry and cocktail tomatoes now account for more than 30 per cent of British tomato-growing acreage compared with half that in 2002, while classic tomatoes have dropped from 67 per cent to 43 per cent in the same period.
The figure that is perhaps most surprising, however, is that "beef" types, those lovely juicy Marmande tomatoes that we look forward to greeting on holiday in southern Europe, currently account for less than 1 per cent of British production. These don't grow well in this country, and they also need to be eaten very ripe and ideally unchilled, soft to the point of bursting, which makes them bruise easily and difficult to transport. So we just have to take advantage of niche heirloom types when they present themselves in a farmer's market or a local greengrocer. Plum tomatoes are more prevalent, and aside from their obvious charms hold their own on a barbecue better than others.
The Perfect Tomato
Some things we cannot change, and one of them is our level of sunshine. Those luscious fruits of the Mediterranean have in part the radiant cloud-free days of that clime to thank for their sweetness. Sunshine together with leaf area account for the level of sugar in a tomato, which is why as a broad rule of thumb, the smaller the fruit, the sweeter it is. There is only so much to go round in a tomato, so the larger it is, the more diluted it tends to be; conversely, the smaller it is, the more concentrated the sugars and flavour components.
Sweetness, though, is only half the battle. A tomato can be fit for the fruit bowl and still taste bland without an edge of acidity to offset and bring out its flavour. It's that age-old thing of balance, the judicious squeeze of lemon that makes a dull strawberry shine, or the weighty addition of sugar to a compote of gooseberries or rhubarb that renders two of our otherwise inedible fruits gloriously vibrant.
Pernickety chefs are inclined to skin and de-seed tomatoes to neaten presence as dice or strips in a salad, but this is to waste the best bit. While sugars are concentrated in the flesh, a tomato's volatile aromas and acids that give rise to its perfume are mainly contained within the flimsy jelly surrounding the yellowy-green seeds. Unless it's absolutely necessary to do away with the seeds, make good use of that pulp and enjoy the wholesome rusticity that goes with them.
Marks & Spencer is finding that our taste in tomatoes is getting "sweeter". We tend to use the larger varieties for cooking, and the smaller ones with a more intense flavour in salads. Its biggest seller is a small plum tomato called "Santini", which has a delicate thin skin and lovely just-picked aroma, while its "Piccolini", a large on-the-vine cherry tomato is deliciously sharp and a little firmer. But it is the "Tomalini", a fabulously juicy and fragrant midi plum, that caught my attention, a variety the store says is "walking off the shelves", unsurprisingly. I also loved Waitrose's "Piccolo" Sicilian cherry vine tomatoes that come in a pleasing array of miniature sizes and look as though you grew them yourself, and its "Red Choice", which puts my faith back in the potential for a good "classic" tomato, perfect for that weekend brunch with bacon and eggs.
How to make the most of tomatoes
Roasting tomatoes on the vine intensifies their sweetness and the caramelised juices can be put to good use for coating pasta and other salad ingredients. Arrange 650g of small tomatoes on the vine in a roasting tray so they fit snugly in a single layer. Drizzle two tablespoons of olive oil and one tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and season with sea salt and black pepper. Roast for 10 minutes at 250C, by which time the tomatoes will be soft, the skins will have burst and the stalks blackened. Once the tomatoes are cool they can be popped off the stalks, by pinching the very top by the calyx. If you like, add a couple tablespoons of olive oil and blend with the juices.
Tomatoes are clever little fruits that come with an integral salad dressing. Simply slice and sprinkle with sea salt, and a little sugar if you doubt their sweetness, and leave for 15-30 minutes to draw out the juices. Were you to do nothing further, this intensely flavoured liquid stands as a delicate dressing in its own right, with or without that glug of extra virgin olive oil. And from there it's all about gutsy bread, sharp white cheeses and olives.
You could also scatter a few wafer-fine strands of shallot or spring onion over them, maybe some torn flat-leaf parsley, a fine dusting of ground sumac – the sharp-tasting rust-red berries beloved of Lebanese cooks – or a sprinkling of zaatar and a blend of ground sesame seeds, dried thyme, sumac and sea salt. Dried oregano or mint is also a delicious touch. I would steer clear of vinegar, unless you are using big beefsteak types that lack the sweet sourness of smaller ones. Basil? If you must, but I find this a bit of a cliché.
In Sicily – where there is tomato sauce there is dinner – they will make and bottle this as we might marmalade, once a year and in quantity. It also freezes well. As light as it is intense, its thin, pale appearance belies its full-on sweetness. For children, it's nirvana with pasta and a sprinkling of Parmesan or crisp breadcrumbs, or it will form the foundation for a lasagne or squid stew. Sometimes, in season, you may find producers have a box of seconds that don't quite possess the looks of the prime specimens but are nonetheless great. During the winter months a bog standard cherry tomato is the best bet. Place 1.35kg of halved tomatoes in a medium-size saucepan, cover and cook over a low heat for 20-30 minutes until they collapse, stirring them occasionally. Pass through a sieve or a mouli-légumes and return to the pan, washing it out if necessary. Add a level teaspoon of caster sugar, a heaped teaspoon of sea salt, 100g unsalted butter plus four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, or 100ml of olive oil, and simmer very gently, uncovered, for 60 minutes until thickened but still of a thin pouring consistency. Makes about 800ml.
Arranging tomatoes to be eaten raw along a sunny wall or windowsill for an hour or two in advance works wonders in warming and relaxing the flesh and encouraging the juices to flow.
Two books out this spring offer professional insight into how tomatoes can be used within the home kitchen. In Kitchen Secrets (Bloomsbury; £25), Raymond Blanc devotes a chapter to tomatoes, covering the varietal aspect. He also shares his recipe for "tomato essence": "Simple enough in execution, it delivers the best tomato experience you can ever imagine." Tom Aikens lets his imagination run wild in Easy (Ebury Press; £25) with a fabulously exotic salad of sliced tomatoes, spiced caramelised peanuts, watermelon, a lime syrup and chopped coriander.