The Tomato is Ripening

We got to know the tomato in Hungary in 1649. Back then, the new word “pomodoro” – lit. “golden apple” in Italian – was known as the “apple of paradise” here and mainly used as an ornamental plant, then later as a herb. Its Spanish name, tomate, originates from its original birthplace of Mexico, and comes from the Aztec word xitomati. It has as many different varieties as the multiple possibilities for its use. Indeed, wherever it grows, we can find it in most national dishes.

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Although biologically speaking it’s in fact a fruit, due to the way it’s grown and used, we actually list this once clambering plant, which has been modified multiple times over the centuries, as a vegetable. Its ripe berries are consumed raw, while jam and pickles can be made when it’s picked still green. We wanted to learn more about the apple of paradise, so we asked Marcsi Borbás about where she has tasted the best tomatoes. She recommended Péter Rózsa in the Hortobágy, so on the way to Debrecen we dropped by at the Virágoskút bio farm. Our other “tomato man” was Tamás Járosi at Balaton, who is the founder and owner of Fekete Bárány manufaktúra and the Balatonfüred Malackrumpli. Here is what we learnt from them in a nutshell:


1. There are almost as many different types of tomatoes as kinds of chocolate or wine: small, sweet, clustered, cocktail tomatoes; the early ripening, reliable ones from Kecskemét that returned from Italy; the flavoursome, pale coloured, enormous, non-transportable Lycopersicum Esculentum; the huge Bulgarian, ribbed and juicy type; the sweet, tiny, yellow, pear-shaped; the black kumato that can be eaten green but is better cooked. The clustered red and yellow one that can be grown at home on the balcony. The Lucullus or San Marzano with its longish shape that is also known as the tinned type but is in fact one of the best for preparing sauce or sun dried tomatoes out of. Furthermore, there are several hundred other variations. One thing that they have in common: a real tomato has genuine flavour; a whole range of different flavours in fact. We can also eat them warm without salt or herbs, which many of us have forgotten about, just as we can no longer recall the scent of a rose.


2. Tomatoes are seasonal plants. In our climate, they start ripening mid-June in a greenhouse, and at the end of the month under the sky. Anything we buy before that is either not grown locally, or the roots have not seen any soil, or is simply not a tomato..


3. Hydrocultural production has also reached tomatoes. This is a cultivation method whereby tomatoes only encounter dissolved chemical fertilizers and EPS foam, but rarely soil, seasons, natural microorganisms, harmful and helpful insects, for example. Certainly, the modified tomatoes “return the nurturing”. Even if they have no flavour, they produce 20 times as much as those grown in soil. This way, they hardly throw down any roots; the point being that with such a short time being necessary before they yield, it means more profits for the farmer. These tomatoes aim for colour and LSL (Long Shelf Life) with their thick skins, while aromas and flavour are secondary considerations.


4. The previous point shows exactly why it’s important to know that colour and perfection don’t go together with good flavour. when choosing among tomatoes. Seeds of tomatoes produced in a controlled and intensive way live under artificial circumstances. Their appearance is usually perfect, but their flavours are usually far from it. The best way is to choose from the mixed-size, irregularly-shaped tomatoes, with faulty tomatoes here and there, instead of perfect looking ones. You might as well want to smell them.


5. As tomatoes grow tasty on their own stems, we should always look out for the ripe ones. They retain their aromas the best when stored at room temperature and kept away from direct light, for example in a paper bag. Should you decide to keep them in a fridge, take them out an hour before eating them. 


6. If you decide to grow your own plants, it might be difficult to choose from the several hundred of noble varieties. At the market one can find the “round” and the “longish” plants on the stalls, although some improvements have occurred lately. If you are brave enough to plant them yourself, then you should read up on the seeds as well. It’s quite frequent to find seeds of the “rubber skinned” tomatoes, destined for the counter of supermarkets in packets, but one also has limitless options for ordering and exchanging seeds over the internet.


7. Lecsó. One can hardly imagine any cuisine without tomatoes. From Mexican tortillas, through Italian pasta, to American pizza, from Andalusian gazpacho through Greek salad to Provence’s ratatouille, they provide the basis of several recipes. Lecsó has become part of our life in Hungary and it is one of our favourite tomato-based dishes, but one which many people regard as a real wine-killer. Despite this assumption, it can be amazing with a good Kadarka, light Kékfrankos or rosé fröccs (spritzer). This is what we can learn about it from the new book by Béla Fehér and József Vinkó entitled Szellem a fazékból (Ghost from the pot):

Béla Fehér:“It’s exactly as if someone tried to say something new about love, even though they know that everybody considers their own love and lecsó exceptional. I have seen good friends almost have a fist fight about the recipe for it. They say it’s an ancient Hungarian dish, even though it’s not. I was shocked to read in the historical-etymological dictionary of the Hungarian language that the word lecsó first appeared in print in 1940. Later, I discovered that it appeared in the 1931 edition of the Új Idők recipe book. According to the dictionary, it’s an onomatopoeic word that possibly comes from “locsog” (i.e. chats), however, if you dig into it a bit it soon turns out that in certain parts of the country, the word “lecsedék” means kitchen waste, “lecses” and “lecskes” mean soft and juicy, while “lecsma” means withered. Maybe that’s where one should look for the source of the word “lecsó”. What else can I say? Lecsó is the barefoot foot soldier of Hungarian gastronomy. As long as it goes to the war, serious harm cannot happen.”


József Vinkó: “How many times does one have to write that lecsó is not a dish. It’s a life philosophy. It’s a gauge of our Hungarianness, even if cook books don’t mention it until 1931. Real lecsó can only be made from Hungarian paprika, in fact, it can only be made from several kinds of Hungarian paprika. Beside the fleshy Cecce white paprika, one has to put in the slightly hot Bogyiszló and semi-red lecsó paprika as well.  Then onions and juicy tomatoes are needed. The proportions are a matter of life and death: one part onion, two parts tomato, four parts paprika. No compromises. Fresh home made bread and red wine. That’s it.”