Some time ago, a supplier turned up at the restaurant with a “new” product for us to sample. It was called Garum and, although it was presented in a very elegant way with a modern, stylish packaging in a long, clear bottle and a funky new label, I knew that there was absolutely nothing new about Garum. I remember reading somewhere in an old cookbook that it was almost like a latter day ketchup for the gods in Imperial Rome and garum is actually mentioned in Roman literature as far back as the 3rd and 4th century B.C!

It was basically a fish sauce, not in the sense of something you put on fish, but rather something made from fermenting fish and used as a condiment. In a very similar way to Asian fish sauce, the Roman version was made by layering fish and salt until it ferments, then used to flavour almost anything at the time. The decline of the Roman Empire meant the decline of garum but it still continues to be made in a few places in the Mediterranean, primarily around Naples, where it’s called colatura and it is now making a bit of a comeback. It’s the umami of the sea and has everything the sea contains: salt, iodine, oxide and the salting of fish over time.

Umami is the enigmatic fifth taste, a rich, meaty flavour and a catalyst that unlocks and defines the deliciousness in certain savoury foods. About 3,000 years ago, Greek philosophers came up with the concept of our four elemental tastes: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Their theory remained intact right up until the early 20th century, when a scientist in Japan discovered a fifth taste: umami. But unlike the traditional four tastes, umami it seems, is a bit more complicated. In Japan, people have for years used dashi, an umami-rich stock made from kombu (seaweed), to illicit the best flavour from food.

The concept of umami has been recognised in the East for a long time, but only over the past decade or so has umami started to play an increasingly important role in the West. Now obsessive chefs believe that if you can find the perfect balance of the five basic tastes: sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami, you’ll have some sort of culinary utopia!

Thankfully for those who don’t want to douse all their food in soy sauce, fish sauce and glutamate there are some naturally occurring umami rich foods such as sardines, mackerel, oysters, mushrooms, truffles, soy beans, potatoes and tomatoes.

Tomatoes actually take on an intense umami flavour when they are dried and there are a number of reasons why the flavour of tomatoes changes during both the cooking and drying processes. The first is that the tomatoes are sprinkled with fairly high levels of salt to help to remove moisture. During the drying or cooking process this causes all of the flavour molecules to become more concentrated. The resulting flavour is more intense and without getting too technical, the glutamic acid breaks down over the course of the drying process - due to the evaporation of water and introduction of salt - and changes into different aroma molecules.

That’s why a basic tomato sauce or ketchup has lots of umami, but when you dry tomatoes, they have considerably more and they can also flavour so many dishes. Now is the perfect time to try your own sun- dried tomatoes and unlock all that hidden umami!

OVEN, SUN-DRIED TOMATOES

Ingredients:
2kg ripe plum tomatoes
6 garlic cloves, crushed
6tbsp chopped oregano
1tbsp sea salt (flor de sal)
freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to the lowest heat setting.

2. Slice the tomatoes in half horizontally and scoop out most of the seeds. Salt the insides and turn the cut side down on a wire cooling rack- leave for half an hour, then rinse and dry.

3. Mix the crushed garlic with the oregano and black pepper. Spread this mix over the cut side of the tomatoes. Place the tomatoes cut side up in a roasting tray and dribble over olive oil into the tray.

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4. Cook in the oven for 4-6 hours or leave in the sun for up to two days, taking them in at night.

5. Place the tomatoes in a sterilized kilner jar and cover with extra virgin oil. Use in any recipe that requires sun-dried tomatoes. Store in a cool, dark place, the tomatoes should keep for 6 months. Refrigerate upon opening and keep for 1 month covered with olive oil.

SUN DRIED TOMATO PESTO

*Pesto rosso is a variation on traditional green pesto. The addition of sundried tomatoes gives it a distinctive, milder flavor. Try it with pasta, smeared on bruschetta or brush it on a chicken before roasting.

Ingredients
2 cloves of garlic, peeled
100ml olive oil
150g sundried tomatoes
1 Tbsp. pine nuts
2tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
A twist of black pepper

1. Place all the ingredients except the oil into the container of a food processor; blend and gradually add the oil with the processor running on high speed.

2. Store the pesto in a tightly closed jar in the fridge.

HOMEMADE SUN-DRIED TOMATO KETCHUP

Prep time: 20 mins
Cooking time: 40-50 mins

Ingredients
250g sun dried tomatoes, chopped
4 fresh tomatoes, deseeded & chopped
2tbsp tomato puree
1 red onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic
a small piece of fresh ginger, peeled & chopped
2tbsp olive oil
1 red chili, deseeded & chopped
2tbsp red wine vinegar
1tbsp brown sugar
1tsp paprika
Sea salt

1. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the onion, garlic, ginger and chili. Cook gently over a low heat for 5 to 6 minutes until softened, stirring every so often.

2. Add the tomatoes; sun dried tomatoes, sugar, vinegar, paprika and 300ml of cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 10 minutes.

3. Blend the ketchup in a food processor until smooth. (Add a little water if necessary). Season with salt & pepper.