Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Tell them about the tomatoes

It was the tomatoes that made the first major impact.

We'd arrived in Perpignan after a lengthy, but perfectly pleasant journey south, enjoying the scenery of the Rhône Valley, gawping at the Alps that are visible near Valance, contemplating Jean de Florette while passing through Provence and then gibbering away like a delighted child as the sea made its first appearances, sliding teasingly into view on the horizon.

It was Friday evening and our cottage wasn't available until 4pm the following day, so we stayed there until Saturday. After sleeping late, we ambled up to the Place de la Republique (all French towns seem to have one – French urban planners can't be noted for their invention when naming streets and squares) for croissants and coffee, then wandered and shopped before taking lunch, sitting outside in the sun beside the canal.

We both ordered a Catalan salad, which means, in essence, anchovies, hard-boiled egg, black olives, leaves and tomatoes – a regional version of the famed Niçoise.

But the tomatoes ...

These were yellow, and the taste was mind-blowing. Nothing else of the salad remains in my memory but those tomatoes.

A day later, now ensconced in our cottage, it was time for a first trip to the lovely little market that sets up on Sunday and Wednesday mornings in Collioure's tiny village square.

Wandering around was bliss, picking up superb bread, cheese from Pyrénéen mountain goats, more cheese and a variety of saucisson. Fruit was abundant – melons, figs, apricots and peaches (including flat ones that I'd only ever seen before in pictures); all was ripe and smelt wonderful.

And the tomatoes – more varieties than you could shake the proverbial stick at. I found a stall that allowed you to bag up a selection from a wide range of 'heirloom' varieties, taking particular note to raid for the yellow ones. Like those in Perpignan, these were exceptional. At a later visit to the stall, I picked up some that were a pale green with darker green stripes on them – tangier, but every bit as delicious.

One evening, when I was cooking fish, all I did for a side dish was slice up a variety of these gems and then lightly salt them a few minutes before eating. You wanted – needed – nothing more. It was the start of a process of understanding just what the sun means in this region: what happens to the taste when food has been grown slowly and kissed by the sun.

Tomatoes cropped up in more than a few meals in restaurants too: doorstep-like slices, grilled and topped with parsley, garlic and olive oil, cherry tomatoes as part of a salad. Not that local salads are limited to tomatoes. A Collioure salad has local anchovies, usually displayed in a star-like pattern, with strips of roasted red pepper in between, plus hard boiled egg, black olives and usually some leaves. A Vallespir (my personal favourite) has leaves, melon balls, black olives, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts, with sliced baguette, lightly toasted and topped with goats' cheese that has been drizzled with honey before being popped under the grill. Bar de la Marine does this so well – even before you taste anything, the aroma has set your senses aflame.

I can recreate quite a bit of this, but I cannot bring myself to buy tomatoes back home yet. I fully expect anything to be a pale shadow by comparison.

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