One of the many things that visiting friends to the island seem to remember about Majorca, apart from providing the glamorous backdrop to the reality TV series ‘Love Island’, along with the glorious weather, the secret coves and calas, the graceful sweeps of white sandy beaches, the picturesque mountain villages, the constantly changing coastline, the dramatic rocky landscapes dropping dizzily into cristaline waters, the lush pine woodlands, the verdant mountain ranges, the terraced orange and lemon groves or the acres of native olive and almond trees is, wait for it . . . the tomatoes! Yes, that’s right. Tomatoes!
Although the ‘tommy’ season is well and truly over, most of our late visiting friends still wax lyrical and say that the tomatoes here in Majorca are simply out of this world. Well they certainly are, as long as they are not straight out of the supermarket! Not that there is anything wrong with some of our supermarket tomatoes. There are some major players in commercial food retail that stock wonderful tomatoes, in a market-style environment. Generally, it’s the ones neatly packaged in plastic containers you want to avoid, or the ‘dead cheap’ variety sold in nets. They are dead cheap for a reason, and usually virtually tasteless.
The best tomatoes to go for, even the supermarket varieties, are always going to be on the vine, found in the local produce section, or bought directly from a local market stall. For the real pick of the crop you have to venture outside of the aisles, and in all honesty you can’t really beat any home grown produce. Throughout the summer, even the smallest of villages across the island will have a shop selling organic ‘home-growns’ sourced from local allotments. But wherever you get your tomatoes from, they will always benefit from being left to continue ripening outside of the fridge. Only put your tomatoes in the fridge when they are deliciously ripe and ready to eat. But you don’t have to wait for them to go rotten! There is quite a difference from a semi ripe tomato against one that has naturally reached perfection and bursting with sweet flesh and flavour. That’s what our friends remember – Majorca’s perfectly sun ripened tomatoes. Yum!
One of the simplest meals in existence to prepare and present is the Italian combo of tomato and mozzarella cheese, known as ‘insalata Caprese’, or the salad from Capri. There are versions all over Europe as well as here in Majorca. When the tomato is fully and deliciously ripe, then this salad is unbeatable. But I’ve had my fair share of those where the tomato is under-ripe and totally flavourless, making such a simple dish a completely different experience. So by keeping a well stocked supply of tomatoes in a quiet bowl somewhere out of the fridge, you will always have the perfect tomato to hand. Majorcan housewives are a canny lot and know all about this simple yet effective trick. Another tip . . . stand behind a local hard-core shopper in a supermarket or other, and take a free lesson by watching which tomatoes the professional housewife chooses and buys. They will probably be the most expensive, and definitely hand picked from the best of the bunch.
We have a Majorcan friend who grows his own tomatoes throughout the summer, and his wife kindly manages to sneak us a big bagful when his back is conveniently turned (You know who you are, Maria!). I can honestly say that those tomatoes are the best I have ever tasted in my entire life. They are sweet, aromatic, deliciously juicy and disappear far too quickly as Maria can only sneak so many into one basket.
As with most home grown produce you often get a glut at the end of the growing season, but the thrifty Majorcan housewife has a traditional solution which deals with that little inconvenience. Vast quantities of chopped tomatoes are cooked with onions and garlic to produce ‘sofrit’, the ‘mother of all sauces’, which is then bottled in sterilized jars and lasts all through the winter, adding a touch of summer to numerous stews and sauces when tomatoes are mostly hothouse imports and sadly not at their best – like now.
Here in Majorca there is one particular tomato which stands out from all the others, and lays claim to being a unique variety, only found here on our sunny island. This special tomato has its own particular look and its own, intensely individual taste – the ‘tomate de ramallet’, a culinary institution here on the island.
This local tomato is a bit like Donald Trump. It’s rather thick skinned with an orange to rosy bloom. Traditionally, this homespun variety is sewn onto long strings called ‘ramallets’, hence the name, and preserved for winter use by hanging up to dry. The most distinguished and amazing feature of this tomato is that it can be conserved for month upon month without any deterioration whatsoever, almost defying gastronomic science.
The ‘ramallett’ has a seriously intense, tomato flavour and remains one of the key ingredients in Majorcan cuisine. The skin is rarely eaten, acting merely as a protective armour for the juicy tomato flesh and seeds within. The skin also protects the fingers when the tomato halves are grated on a box grater to produce a pulp used in sofritos and sauces. No one wants a fingernail in the ‘frito’. So even when the natural tomato season is over, Majorcans can still enjoy the best of the best.
It is reported that the ramallet tomato first appeared around 1929, grown in the villages of the Tramuntana Mountains, mainly Estellencs and Banyalbufar. These days they are grown all over Majorca yet still remain indigenous to the island. The ‘tomate de ramellet’ is now a protected crop and listed as a conservation variety in the register of commercial varieties.
Over the years, creative farmers have produced a variety of this honoured fruit, and no ‘pa amb oli’ ( or Pam’s brolly as our English friends like to call them ) crowned with ham or cheese, is complete without a good ‘rubbing’ of the said legend. Ramallets certainly aren’t cheap, but once tasted, they’re never forgotten, with the preserved variety filling the void before the next crop of freshly harvested champions!
Here is a quick trick to turn even the dullest ‘out of season’ tomatoes into a tasty treat. Halve any tomato ( two or three is better ) then grate on a box grater collecting the pulp in a bowl. The skin will naturally protect your fingers. Add to the pulp a pinch of sugar, a pinch of dried oregano, salt and pepper to taste along with a good glug of quality olive oil. Stir well and spread this delicious tomato pulp across toasted Majorcan bread. If you are feeling adventurous top with anchovies and slices of boiled egg. So simple but soooo good!
Multi-coloured cherry tomatoes are also trending in the shops at the moment. If I’m using the oven I always tip a punnet of ‘cherry toms’ into a roasting tin, sprinkle with sugar, dried basil, salt, pepper and olive oil, then leave to roast and soften in the bottom of the oven once I’ve turned it off. Leave the tomatoes until the oven is completely cool then refrigerate and use for topping snacks. Great on mozerella cheese with a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar. Enjoy!