Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

5 Sep 2013

Tomato: A fruit of labour

I am sat in my good friend Marco’s kitchen, munching my way through countless tomatoes. These home grown scarlet gems are bursting with flavour, sealed under their skin the minerals of the volcanic soils of Padova, supplemented by a compost of finest Italian espresso coffee grains. Marco’s mother has worked her parcel patiently so that by the time the first blushes of red appear on their swelling cheeks, she is safe in the knowledge that her hard work has paid off.

The rewarding fruit of labour, but for those with less time and skill to grow their own, what are our options? A tomato from the isles of the British supermarket is often resistant to the teeth, only to be followed by flavourless, almost grainy flesh. In the countries of the Med, the flavour is naturally finer owing to the more reliable ripening of the sun, over the heated greenhouses of Holland. Paying more for exported Italian tomatoes then?

Reading an article by Rosella Anitori in La Repubblica however, reveals that blood, sweat and tears are also important ingredients for a tasty tomato. “Each summer in Puglia (the heel of Italy), 800 seasonal workers of African origin lead a gold rush to villages. Here they earn 20euros per day to pick tomatoes working 10 hours non stop”. Conditions mirror those of vulnerable migrant labourers described by Steinbeck in 1930s US, where exploitation results in maximum profits but at the expense of human dignity.

And what of home grown in the city? Could a tomato from the centre of a city beat those of an industrial greenhouse? On the roofs of AgroParisTech, France’s leading Agronomics School, my friend Baptiste Grard is undertaking a project to assess productivity and pollution levels of tomatoes grown on a rooftop garden. I was allowed to taste one of these urban edibles, and sure enough, the work of selecting the best mix of compost (all made from the city of Paris’ organic waste), of tending to the plants, and choosing the best mix of veg has paid off.

The taste of a tomato is defined not only by its providence then, but by the work put into it’s maturity, and the same can be said for much of the food we eat. The proof of a cared-for crop is revealed in its taste.