All our Italian tomatoes come from ‘La Puglia’, a 250-mile strip of farms, groves and vineyards stretching down the calf and heel of Italy’s ‘boot’.
As well as 2468 hours’ sunshine a year, the Mediterranean surrounds Puglia on three sides, always ready to provide a cooling sea breeze that takes the edge off the blazing sun.
Put simply, plants love Puglia.
What makes a tomato taste like it does?
The flavour of a tomato is down to the inherent levels of sugars, organic acids, amino acids and salts. All this adds up to 400 aromatic compounds, 30 of which are widely considered to influence flavour, 16 of them profoundly so.
For example, the classic sweet-sour taste we associate with good tomatoes comes from a combination of sugars and organic acids (if you’re wondering what’s the difference between amino and organic acids… amino acids are the building blocks of protein, organic acids play a role in breaking down fats and sugars).
The ratio of organic acids is really important to flavour. Of the two main ones, citric acid and malic acid, malic is significantly more sour tasting. So small changes in the ratio can make quite a difference in the overall flavour profile.
The concentration of amino acids matters too, for example, the presence of a higher ratio deal of glutamic acid is known to reduce the ‘fruitiness’ of a tomato.*
So there are 30 natural ‘ingredients’ to the natural chemistry that gives a tomato its personality, making it taste the way it does – and the amounts in the ‘recipe’ are dictated by external factors of terroir: light, temperature, soil and irrigation.
For example, our tomatoes come from the Puglian province of Foggia, which is affectionately known as The Tavoliere (the table). That’s not for its stellar contribution to dinner tables: it’s because it’s a natural plain, elevated only just above sea level. Such flatness lets the sea breeze inland, to work its natural air-con magic. Plants love it.
The wind not only helps regulate the heat of the sun, but the minerals that drift in on the breeze matter too. Mineral content varies from place to place, influencing the aromatic compounds differently…our tomatoes don’t just taste good, they taste like Foggia.
They’re a pure product of their environment, with a strong sense of place in the flavour.
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While the Spaniards of Buñol were busy throwing end-of-season tomatoes at each other, frugal Italians had other ideas, using the Ancient Aztec technique of salting and sun drying
There’s a phrase that ‘wine is bottled sunshine’, and yes, that’s completely apt – but there’s more than one way to pack up sunshine and export it.
Being frugal is a way of life in Southern Italy. Wasting beautiful tomatoes is simply not an option. Sun drying, the Ancient Aztec technique of salting foods to keep away bugs, then slow drying them in the sun, has been popular in Italy for generations.
The salt helps keep bacteria at bay while the fruit dries out. Taking the water content down to around 10-15% means the bacteria don’t have the water they need to multiply and flourish. Because of this, sundried tomatoes keep for around 18 months.
All without losing their nutritional value too. In fact, the only change in the nutritional profile is a positive one.
In 2007, a report published in Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture sun-dried tomatoes contain around 20 percent more “bioavailable lycopene” than raw tomatoes.
Lycopene is a hydrocarbon with a dual role. It’s part of photosynthesis, transferring the light absorbed to chlorophyll, thus making energy for the plants to grow and repair itself.
Lycopene is also an antioxidant, absorbing and nullifying by-products of energy creation, singlet oxygens. Singlet oxygens are interesting because they are so-called excitable oxygens, a high-energy type gas that loves to react with organic compounds, oxidising them.
This isn’t always a good thing. In a plant, excitable oxygens can be damaging to the plant’s tissue. In humans, without wanting to harp on about the health implications too much, oxidising cholesterol is not good. When cholesterol oxidises, it builds up on artery walls and we all want to avoid that.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of evidence that olive oil helps avoid that, but that’s another article for another time.
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Semi-dried tomatoes work amazingly in baking. Try them in breads and pastries, infused with Bergamot, balsamic or chilli
So why are tomatoes making these delicious flavours anyway? No-one knows for sure, but there are many compelling theories.
Research published in the Scientific American in 2012 says that the most important of the aromatic compounds is geraniol, a naturally-occurring organic alcohol (with a ph of up to 5, it’s classified as an organic acid, too).
Geraniol has a lemony scent (it’s also present in lemon verbena and roses), and it’s thought that this aroma plays a big role in attracting bees for pollination.
A 1990 study of honey bees showed how bees make this acid themselves and deposit it on plants on good flowering plants, to find their way back to nectar baring flowers.
Scholars tell us that honeybees aren’t particularly fond of tomato pollen, but it’s thought that other bee species are keen – bumblebees are involved in tomato pollination all over the world.
A Brazilian study published in the Journal of Pollination Ecology showed that, when tomatoes were buzz-pollinated, they ‘increased pollen load on their stigma and consequently fruit production and quality.’
Yes and no. Antonio Fiordelisi, our go-to-guy for tomatoes, says he believes his tomatoes are mostly wind pollinated. But they are field-grown, no temperature-regulating green houses… so bees do come and go as they please.
So we come to think about the Mediterranean breeze again…it’s a myth that tomatoes are self-suffient. Nature craves diversity, and plants favour cross pollination.
The pollen blowing in the wind in Puglia could have come from so many sources: there’s an embarassment of riches, produce-wise. You’ve got aubergines, artichokes, fava beans, figs, lemons, bell peppers, grapefruits and watermelons (there’s even a celebratory month dedicated to watermelons)…
Traces of other pollen on the wind influence the natural chemistry over generations. From just one generation onwards in fact… the DNA is carried in the seeds, (this could also be one explantation for subtle changes in flavour from season to season, as happens with most fruits and vegetables).
Other possible theories are geraniol levels are just an evolutionary hangover from ancient times: the orginal wild tomatoes in South America were almost certainly pollinated by native bees.
Another theory be could be to protect themselves from hungry herbivores: tomatoes are known to upset donkeys’ stomachs, for example.
Without more in-depth peer-reviewed scientific study, we just don’t know for sure. But one thing is for certain; nature does it best.
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A lot of the tasteless tomatoes you’ll find in supermarkets are bred to be robust on the road. That’s not the Puglian way.
Rather than breeding tomatoes to be sturdy travelers, the Puglian way is to breed for flavour and efficacy in the kitchen first, then treat them gently and respectfully every step of their onward journey. They’re always hand-picked and hand-sorted, then either packed up fresh or dried in the sun.
There’s no substitute for rich soil, sunshine and an ingrained local connection to the food – and there never will be.
Antonio is a Puglian through and through; his family has been working with the fat of the land for generations. In 1954 he decided to spread his wings a little, and founded his namesake company, which he now manages alongside his four sons.
In 1974, Antonio had the idea to start exporting the traditional sun dried tomatoes and his business has never looked back.
We started working with him in 1994; after asking around Puglia for a top notch tomato grower, George ended up knocking on his door. And 22 years later, we still get all of our Italian tomatoes from him.