I have never yet assisted at an anthropophagous feast. Indeed, despite the occasional voice from the BBC radio archive, many academics now question whether cannibal banquets ever occurred at all. They could be a figment of a warped cultural imagination. (See also: violent Vikings, the various cakes of King Alfred and Marie Antoinette, or even the very existence of the poor old Dolly Sisters). The tomato is such a well-known homely fruit and food-chain-rivet today. It’s hard to imagine it in Pre-Conquest Mexico, served up with marigolds and tuberose on a garnished epergne of human sacrificial flesh.
‘Tomatl’ the old Mexica called the luscious-acid berry. Spookily it’s a member of the nightshade family. We in Britain first wrote the word as ‘tamatah’ or ‘tomata’ – the way many of us still pronounce it.
How the tomatl finished up here is uncertain. It grew wild all over the South American continent and came to London via Italy and Spain, courtesy of Columbus – maybe! – and the Conquistadors. In those days carrots were purple, beetroots were yellow and tomatoes were gold. And the English didn’t take to the novelties at all. The taste was too sharp and sour for a nation already sky-high on sugar. The colour was at first thought amusing for table decoration; but tomatoes, it seems, mostly ended up in animal feed. What people objected to most, was the horrible smell.
Which is odd. Because today the fragrance of ripe warm tomatoes is as much of a delicacy as the fruit itself. I used to know a greenhouse in a walled secret garden. At this time of year, the hothouse would surrounded with huge fleshy bitter-scented scarlet dahlias and a tangle of tarragon, run wild. Push open the swollen glass door and you were embraced by the narcotic perfume of vine peaches, and of ripening tomatoes in their feathery foliage.
I’m growing tomatoes right now, in tubs, and feeding them with Tomorite. Very healthy this year, they are: bug-free and appreciative of last week’s 48 hour deluge. The leaves smell good when pinched: spicy and green and slightly dusty, musty, feral. I guess the scent is not that far removed from that of geraniums. Spiky, aromatic, uplifting. Our wonderful Mona di Orio always remembered from infancy the smell of her grandmother’s geraniums: one of her own key perfume references. Baking summer days – and then watering the flower pots in the cool of the evening: the sharp tang of wet earth and leaves.
We have had one or two tomato scents in the shop over the years; and the occasional tomato candle. They have all been ingenious and rather lovely; though not especially successful sellers. Maybe because – although lusciously redolent – the tomato is too much associated in people’s minds with eating. But then, you exclaim, what nonsense is this? Folk go mad for gourmand perfumes suggestive of cream, chocolate, peaches, apricots, praline, liqueurs. Yes, certainly. But then these are luxurious, voluptuous, often rather unhealthy foods: ergo, erotic. The tomato represents ‘health for all’ and for some perverse reason that is not generally seen as sexy. Or, not as yet. Consider, too, canned tomato soup: it comes very high on comfort lists for the poorly and the exhausted. That too doesn’t sit well with an exuberant sensuality.
When tomatoes were eventually bred as red in hue they still failed to find favour. Great ladies of the Victorian and Edwardian era – most famously Duchess Violet of Rutland – thought them common. The Duchess banned them from Belvoir Castle. I remember it being said that Prime Minister John Major loathed tomatoes, and they were in his day never proffered with the Full English at No.10. My father was wary of them and preferred them skinned. He believed that every tomato skin ingested would one day have to be accounted for: evidently another inherited Victorian food fad.
My grandmother taught me the most amusing way to peel tommies: inexhaustible fun at age five or six. You stuck a skewer into the core, and held the fruit in the gas flame of the stove, rotating it slowly. Sooner or later there came a satisfying ‘POP!’ – and a spitting burst of juice – and a wonderful scent of scorching warm tomato flesh. The skin slid off as easily as on a baking Bank Holiday beach weekend at Bognor!
I saw Jamie Oliver cooking dried beans the other night. He advised popping in a tomato because its acid softens the beans, and stops them from splitting. It occurred to me that you could drop in whole tomatoes and thus loosen their skins in the boil-up. Myself, I don’t bother about peeling. The way I like my tomatoes best is raw – warm from the sun, sliced and tossed in olive oil and black pepper. Let the mix sit – covered – in the sun a while longer. Lots of fresh basil leaves satisfy an urgent need for violent primary colour-clashing and added fragrance. To gild the lily, chuck in peeled and glistening avocado halves. The ultimate quantum of solace.