In collaboration with The Italian Trade Agency and The Council of Italian Restaurants in Australia (CIRA), restaurant Osteria Balla Manfredi recently hosted a lunch billed as ‘a sensory and educational journey on the precious Italian tomato and its industry.’
We all know and love Italian food for its bold flavours and heartwarming ingredients. But looking into the tomato and its history was actually really fascinating. Here are some facts about the humble tomato that perhaps you may not know (I certainly didn’t!):
- The preconception is that the tomato is Italian, but it was actually the Aztecs, and then the Spaniards, who brought it to Europe in the 1500’s!
- Today it is almost impossible to think of a savoury Italian dish without tomato! But initially they were considered poisonous, and took almost 200 years to be deemed edible
- Before it was for eating, the tomato had many other intriguing qualities – believed to excite, it was labelled as an aphrodisiac, and was used by alchemists in the 1500’s and 1600’s in potions
- Tomato plants were also given as gifts by men to their lovers, as it was referred to as “the love Apple”
- There are so many fascinating stories in history regarding the tomato: allegedly Abraham Lincoln’s cooks were convinced by some politicians to cook a tomato-based dish in the hopes of poisoning him. Obviously after the meal was over he wasn’t dead, and this gained the tomato popularity in the gentry of America.
- As the fear subsided, the tomato became a symbol of good luck, and people placed them on the mantlepieces of their new homes with the promise of prosperity. Interestingly, when tomatoes were hard to come by at certain times of year, balls of red fabric were put in place of the fruit, and thus pincushions were invented… That’s why pincushions always looked like red tomatoes! How funny is that!
- The oldest known Italian recipe containing tomato is “Salsa di Pomodoro alla Spagnola,” literally translated to “Spanish Tomato Sauce”, from 1692.
As I mentioned above, it’s hard to imagine Italian cuisine without some sort of tomato involvement, and the tomato has become such an important part of both their cultures.
That’s why I felt very privileged to be at this lunch, where five of Australia’s best Italian chefs came together to create an exquisite degustation menu to highlight the diversity and celebrate the history of tomatoes from Italy.
Italy places third in the world (after the USA and China) for the production of tomatoes. The method used in Italy to tin the tomato is unique – they are ripened to perfection on the vine before being preserved, thus retaining its full-bodied, rich taste and striking red colour.
To best highlight this incredible product, each chef was asked to prepare a dish, and first up was Fransesco Spataro from restaurant Aperitivo, with his Sicilian Pizzette. Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture of these, as they were being served as everyone was arriving, and in the chaos I didn’t get a chance. But they were little balls of steamy, fluffy bread, topped with a delicious tomato sauce and chunks of crispy, melted mozzarella. The perfect way to begin our lunch. We were also served a Negroni with a tomato twist, which had a sweet taste as it hit the tongue, and then a lingering bitterness.
Next was one of the most intriguing dishes I’ve ever had. It was a Burrata with Sun-dried Cherry Tomatoes, by chef Eugenio Maiale, of A Tavola and Besser. It looked like a solid ball of mozzarella, or a cheese dumpling! When I cut into it, I realised that the outer shell was solid mozzarella, but inside was a heavenly, oozing, cheesy cream! Paired with the sharpness of the sun-dried tomatoes, the whole dish just danced in my mouth.
The following dish was a creation from Giovanni Pilu, from Pilu at Freshwater. The only pasta dish of the day, Giovanni presented a Pecorino Tortellini, Tomato Broth and Bottarga. His perfect little tortellini were smooth, and the cheese inside was salty and velveteen. The tomato broth was clean and fresh, and all together made for a divine mouthful.
Next we had Steamed Mulloway with Spicy Lucariello Tomato, crafted by Gabriele Taddeucci, the head chef at Balla, the restaurant we were eating at. Mulloway is quite a delicate fish, and the fillets were prepared with a lot of care. The tomato broth appeared to be drizzled with basil oil or something similar, and was thicker than expected. It was a hearty meal, and the little bit of heat from the chilli was a welcome addition.
Finally, the dessert was served. A ripple of excitement ran through us as the dish was placed down. How could tomato be incorporated into a dessert? Surely not! But Danny Russo of Russolini worked his magic, and created a showstopper dish: Tomato Cannoli with Saffron Crema e Fiordilatte Gelato. The result was mindbogglingly delicious. The saffron cream was balanced perfectly with the fresh, tangy tomato gel, and the whole thing was sprinkled with a salty olive crumb. Get all three elements on the spoon, top it with the cold, sweet, milky gelato and boom! An explosion of textures and flavours in your mouth.
Needless to say, I didn’t need to eat for the rest of the day. What a privilege it was to experience Australia’s best Italian chefs celebrating such a special ingredient from their countries, and using it in ways I never would have thought possible. It really highlighted how versatile a fruit the tomato really is, and what an incredible journey it’s been on – from the ancient Aztecs to becoming a staple in Australian pantries. Whether it’s crushed, juiced, chopped, stewed, tinned, peeled, boiled – the possibilities are endless!
Osteria Balla Manfredi
Level G, Harbourside
The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont, Sydney NSW
Phone: (02) 9657 9129
Monday to Friday 12:00pm-2:30pm
Monday to Thursday 5:30pm-9:30pm
Friday and Saturday 5:30pm-10:00pm