Food and Drink: Imagine life without them: The indispensable tomato plays a vital supporting role in many dishes - and is the star of many more

The whole plant is of a ranke and stinking savour - John Gerard, 1597.

Considering their Moisture and Coldness, the Nourishment they afford must be bad - 18th century.

THE TOMATO was not an instant success in Europe. It doesn't seem to have been a great hit in its native terrain, either. It derives from an Andean plant, with tiny fruit that we would hardly recognise, and there is no evidence that ancient Andean Indians ever ate these little berries. However, by the time the conquistadores arrived in Mexico, cherry-sized tomatoes were being cultivated and eaten there.

The first tomatoes to make it across the Atlantic, in the 1520s, were yellow-skinned, hence the Italian pomodoro, golden apple, which was bastardised into French as pomme d'amour, and so to the early English name, love apple. Odd to think that the 'designer' yellow tomatoes that are now so fashionable are really a throwback to the original. Red tomatoes date from the 18th century.

It took 300 years for the British to overcome their suspicion of this foreign fruit, and then they did so only with caution. Recipes for cooking 'tomatas' began to appear in books in the 19th century, but the Continental habit of eating them raw in salads did not really gain acceptance until after the First World War.

Only now have we begun to appreciate the tomato to the full. The label 'grown for flavour' still makes me wince - what else would any right-minded person grow a tomato for? - but it's definitely a step in the right direction. Flavour, of course, comes with an inflated price tag, but at least the choice is there.

Flavour and suitability depend not only on variety but also on where the fruit is grown, whether outdoors or indoors, the climate, the length of time on the plant. On top of that there is personal preference. It is widely considered, not just in Britain but in many parts of the Mediterranean, that salad tomatoes should be firm, slightly under-ripe and not too juicy. However, I would far rather eat a salad made with fully ripened, tender, scarlet-fleshed fruit. When it comes to cooking, common sense dictates the few rules. For stuffing and baking, a firmer tomato is the logical choice if it is not to collapse in the oven, while plum tomatoes (and, for that matter, cherry tomatoes) are ruled out on grounds of shape. For sauces, well-ripened (but not mouldering) fruit with a generous dose of sweetness are probably best, though the tartness of greener fruit can be corrected with a little sugar. But Italian tinned tomatoes may still be a better bet than fresh, unless you're blessed with a glut of home-grown, or cheap high-summer fruit.

There are few herbs that do not go well with tomatoes. Basil is the obvious king, with its extraordinary peppery scent, but do not overlook mint, thyme, chives, parsley, coriander, marjoram or oregano. With the exception of thyme, most of these are best added right at the end of the cooking time of such things as sauces, so that their freshness is preserved. With salads this is debatable. Half an hour or so of sitting around, fully dressed and herbed, allows the flavours to blend, though the bright green of newly-torn herbs will darken. I find that convenience rather than the fine tunings of taste dictates whether I leave the flavours to develop or opt for vivid freshness.

Recipes:

Tomates a la creme

Fried tomatoes with a touch of indulgence. With their rich cream sauce they make a marvellous accompaniment to plainly cooked meat. You could also serve them as a first course on toast, or, better still, fried bread.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1lb (450g) medium tomatoes

a little oil

1/4 pint (150ml) double cream

salt and pepper

chopped parsley

Preparation: Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally. Lightly grease a heavy-based frying pan and set over a high heat. Leave until searingly hot. Lay the tomatoes in it, cut sides down, and cook for 30-60 seconds until browned underneath. Turn the other way up and reduce heat. Cook for another minute or so, then spoon in the cream, salt and pepper. Simmer for a further 3-4 minutes until cream is reduced to a rich sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings, sprinkle parsley over and serve.

Gratin of tomatoes and onions

In complete contrast to the last recipe, this one tastes as light and healthy as you can hope for without dullness or worthiness creeping in. As the cooking time is brief, I include the basil leaves right from the start, but for extra zip, a few more might be added just before serving.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 2 small onions, very thinly sliced

1lb (450g) plum tomatoes, quartered lengthwise

8 medium-sized basil leaves

3tbs olive oil

pinch or two of sugar

salt and pepper

Preparation: Pour boiling water over the onions, and leave for 3 minutes. Drain and pat dry on kitchen paper. Grease a shallow, ovenproof dish with a little of the oil, and arrange the tomatoes tightly in it, skin side down. Season with salt, pepper and a couple of pinches of sugar. Scatter over the basil leaves, roughly torn up. Spread the onions on top, then drizzle with olive oil. Season lightly. Bake at 220C/425F/Gas Mark 5 for 15-20 minutes (the onions should catch here and there in the heat of the oven). Serve immediately.

Tomato mousse

Though I've tried various recipes for tomato mousse, I come back time and again to this one of my mother's. It is stunningly good. Serve as a first course with thin slices of granary bread, or as a light main course for a warm-weather lunch, extended with slices of avocado and cold cooked chicken, smoked if you can get it.

Serves 6-8

Ingredients: 1lb (450g) tomatoes, skinned

6fl oz (175ml) tomato juice

1 sachet (11g) powdered gelatine

4tbs boiling water

sugar

salt and pepper

Worcestershire sauce

8fl oz (250ml) whipping cream

Preparation: Liquidise or process the tomatoes, then sieve to remove seeds. Measure out 8fl oz (250ml) and mix with the tomato juice.

To dissolve gelatine, put 1/2 teaspoon cold water in a teacup and sprinkle in the powder. Pour on the boiling water and stir until gelatine has completely dissolved. Stir in a tablespoon of the tomato mixture, then another and another. Now combine with the rest of the tomato mixture. Season with salt, about 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce, pepper and 2 teaspoons sugar. Make sure that it is generously seasoned, as the cream will soften the flavour. Chill the mixture to the consistency of egg white. Whip the cream until it is thick, and fold into the tomato jelly. Pour into an oiled mould and chill until set. Turn out just before serving.

Piperade

Piperade comes from the south-west of France, and is one of those homely dishes that are endlessly appealing. It is not particularly stylish to look at - a gloop of tomato and pepper and egg wrapped up in ham - but it tastes so good that this doesn't matter. The tomato and pepper sauce can be made in advance, but don't add the eggs or fry the ham until the last moment.

Serves 4 generously

Ingredients: 1 red pepper and 1 green pepper, both deseeded and cut into strips

1 onion, chopped

4tbs olive oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1lb (450g) tomatoes, skinned and roughly chopped

1tbs tomato puree

1/2 tsp sugar

2tbs chopped parsley

4 eggs, lightly beaten

4 large thick slices cooked ham

salt and pepper

Preparation: Fry the peppers and onion gently in 3 tablespoons of the oil until tender without browning. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or so longer. Now add the tomatoes, tomato puree, sugar, salt and pepper, and boil hard until reduced to a thick, pulpy sauce.

When the sauce is almost done, heat the remaining oil in a separate large pan over a brisk heat. Add the ham slices, two at a time, and brown lightly on one side. Lay each slice on a warm plate and keep warm.

When the sauce is thick, stir in the beaten eggs and the parsley. Stir for a minute or so until creamy and very lightly set. Adjust seasoning. Spoon a quarter of the egg tomato scramble down the centre of each slice of ham, and flip the sides over to cover. Serve immediately.

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