“Rites of Red: Hanging Winter Tomatoes”

From The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (Scribner, 1999) — instructions for hanging in the last paragraph:

I practically reeled at my first taste of Puglia’s little oval tomatoes. Once I broke through the tough skin, the tomato tasted so lavish it could have been a sauce —brilliant flashes of sweet and tart with bursts of ripe fruit in each bite. I was at a farm stand in southern Puglia. The woman there explained that these tomatoes are cut in late summer and hung on their branches in pantries or outdoors under shady porches, where they shrivel slightly but do not dry. They are used just like fresh tomatoes all though Puglia’s mild winter, when garden tomatoes are not to be had. And there’s no work to them — no canning, no expensive jars and no tedious drying in fitful weather. This is the genius of country women who can’t afford to waste time, yet find ways of having the best from their gardens all through the year.

Even the tomato’s seed packets call them “Pomodori d’Inverno” (tomatoes of winter), and though it’s hard to imagine, their flavors become even more intense as they hang from late summer until the following spring.

Most of the tomatoes treated this way are shaped like small eggs with pointed blossom ends. Dora Ricci, who cooks in the restaurant she and her husband run outside the country town of Ceglie Messapico, gave me my first taste of a wintered-over red tomato — it was even punchier and more luscious than the fresh one I’d tasted the year before.

Across Puglia, in the pottery town of Grottaglia, Elizabetta Del Monoco introduced me to green tomatoes treated the same way — cut while still green on the branch and hung all winter. They don’t turn red, but instead go from tasting simply like green tomatoes to tasting of lemon and herbs and black pepper — more complex and interesting.

Puglia’s farmers don’t hold the patent on this method of holding tomatoes through winter. People all over Italy do it.

Cooking with these tomatoes is even easier than with fresh — the intense flavor is already in place. Dora Ricci cooks them quickly in a hot skillet to sauce pasta and meats. Elisabetta Del Monaco dices her green winter tomatoes and barely cooks them before dressing her Green Tomato Sauce for Midsummer’s Eve. Country women all over Italy season broths, stews and pot roasts with a few winter tomatoes. Best of all is squeezing out the flesh and juice of a winter tomato onto a slice of bread that’s been toasted over a wood fire, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil. This is pure heaven. I do it in my fireplace at home.

Hang your own fresh tomatoes through the winter. You need a dry, airy place that remains above freezing, ideally between 45 degrees and 60 degrees F. Delicious small tomatoes are the other requirement. Think about Red Currants, Sweet 100’s, Sun Golds, Early Cascades or Principessa Borgheses. Cut the vines, being sure the tomatoes are firmly attached to stems. One trick is hanging them so plenty of air circulates around the tomatoes. Space them out on several nails rather than having them hang in a single tight bunch. Turn the branches twice a week to expose all the fruit for maximum exposure to the air. Twist off tomatoes as you need them. Usually they keep well from September or October until April or May.

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