Laila Gohar’s Puglian tomatina
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Food & Drink news every morning.
Every summer in a village called Buñol, near Valencia in Spain, 20,000 people gather to celebrate summer by throwing hundreds of tonnes of tomatoes at each other at La Tomatina festival. I have never been, but have spent a significant amount of time down an internet rabbit hole looking at images of people smothered in blood-red tomato flesh. While I have no urge to participate, it has inspired me to start my own tomatina. For the past several years I have hosted a yearly party as an homage to my favourite food. Tomatoes are at their peak in late August and early September so the celebration usually happens then. At my tomato parties no one throws tomatoes, but there is always a bounty of different delicious tomato courses to eat.
Last year the fête took place in New York where I live, and was centred around tomatoes that were sliced at the top, hollowed out and stuffed with potato salad. Then the tops were placed back on with an anchovy on each one, much like a tomato and anchovy fascinator. This year, I was lucky enough to be in Puglia during peak tomato season and there is no better place to celebrate. Puglia is world famous for its many varieties of tomato. The region is surrounded by sea on three sides and is sunny nearly every single day of the year. This climate makes for optimal growing conditions.
In Puglia, I rented a house with friends and family in a town called Patù, located in the south of the region. The house had a large tomato patch, as well as fig trees, caper plants, wild fennel and quite possibly the most luxurious “fence” I’ve ever seen: 50m of thick bay leaf plants that would perfume the air with the most magnificent scent all evening long. These elements needed to be supporting actors to the tomato protagonist. Over the course of three weeks, I bought and sampled all the varieties I could find. By the end of it, my friends may have experienced tomato fatigue and started to get irritated with my compulsive habit: little cherry tomatoes rolled around the back seat of the car, having fallen out of my purse, then someone found a large yellow tomato on the sink next to my toothbrush, and every day a new variety would appear on our kitchen counter. I made the case that it was all research.
My findings: Datterini, the famous cherry tomatoes with thick skin and rich, sweet flesh, are best peeled. I find peeling tomatoes one of the most gratifying kitchen tasks of all. I peel them by scoring the bottom, dropping them in a pot of boiling water for just a few seconds and then shocking them in ice-cold water. When you pull the tomatoes out, the skins slip off like a silk nightdress. Pachino are best eaten by the handful directly from the vine (because the vine smells incredible) but also raw in salads. Then there is the Lungo, which I suspect is a variety of San Marzano. These are best in sauces and stews. The Pisanello (named after the painter) is both sweet and sour and nice eaten with bread. I also bought a ton of yellow Piennolo and Perino Giallo, also yellow, but larger and pear-shaped. Both made excellent salad. After much research I felt ready to tackle the menu of my 2022 tomato festival.
One of my favourite combinations is tomato and anchovy – whether cured or fresh. When I spotted fresh anchovies at the fish market in Tricase, I knew I needed to incorporate them into the meal. I bought two kilos, took them home and marinated them in olive oil, fig leaves, garlic and fennel fronds. The anchovies were then coated with a very finely ground polenta and pan-fried. I also found yard-long beans, which can be stewed and eaten whole. I cooked them until soft with plenty of (peeled) San Marzano Lungo tomatoes, bay, onions and olive oil. Next I made a salad of the yellow Piennolo and Perino Giallo varieties with bottarga, pickled caper leaves and onions. The other salad was a mix of peeled Pachino and Datterini from our own patch, served with mozzarella, pickled fennel and basil. I grated and chopped the Pisanello (and some garlic) over friselle, a toasted crispbread, to make a sort of hybrid pan con tomate/bruschetta. And finally I grilled a dozen large prawns because… why the hell not?
We sat under a giant fig tree and enjoyed the meal with a variety of Apulian wines. My friends forgave me for the weeks of “research” and agreed that it was all worth it. After all, I did peel all those tomatoes for them. There are certain things that you only do for people you love, and peeling tomatoes is most certainly one of them.