The hope was that the six tomatoes ripening on the plant on the terrace would be ready for this column. They are not. No home-grown bruschetta topping quite yet.
What we gain, though, is a day or two more of the tomato watch that’s been going on every morning since the day – just after Easter – that my mum gave my son some seeds. He then filled a bin bag-lined supermarket basket with soil, poked the seeds in, then positioned it against the sunniest wall, under our upstairs neighbours’ constantly dripping air-conditioning unit. I’m not sure what I have enjoyed more: watching determined little shoots become plants and parents of six, or a determined six-year-old cheer them on with the same fist-clenched intent he cheers on AS Roma.
Tomato watching, also tomato sniffing. What is it that makes tomato leaves and vines smell so utterly gorgeous? It’s the most vegetal, sappy and happy scent, although that is measuring it against three geranium plants, four clambering ringosperna, a gangly supermarket rosemary (forever traumatised by the move from plastic to real pot), a tub of unidentified but possibly edible weeds, a dying oleander, rampant caper and the toe-biting tortoise, all of which inhabit our dripping, sunny terrace.
While we wait on our bumper crop, Filippo’s Testaccio market stall is now a sea of red and pink and green. It is the tomatoes on the green fringe that I have been enjoying most this year, a plum-shaped variety with skin the colour of cucumber flesh with pinky-red streaks. Filippo simply calls them casarecce – home grown. My friend, the cook and gardener Carla Tomasi, calls this particular variety insalatari – salad tomatoes. I remember the first time I was given a bruschetta with tomatoes that were more green than red, more crunch than flesh. It seemed all wrong: surely the point of tomatoes in this situation was that they squished and squashed, gave themselves over to the bruschetta? It was an unexpected lesson to learn that, if the tomatoes are good, flavourful and well-coated with olive oil (which catches salt), then green flesh with its snappy, acid crunch, piled on garlic-rubbed, oil-sodden toast is a pleasure. It is the same with insalata caprese, where slices of green-tinted and acidic tomato flesh make an ideal partner for milky mozzarella. Of course, red and ripe, or crisp and green, you decide on the best tomatoes for your bruschetta or your caprese … just don’t forget the basil.
When referring to English legs on an Italian beach, bruscate means “burned”. In relation to bread, it means toasted – hence bruschetta, or little toasts. Good bruschetta is made with bread that has a compact crumb – a dense, country-style loaf or, better still, Tuscan-style unsalted bread, ideally a day old so it has firmed up. Barbecues – presently playing their biggest role for years – are the ideal place to make bruschetta, but a grill, toaster or griddle pan works just as well (for those of you who have asked, ‘What will she write about next, making toast?’ I seem to be doing just that). By toasting bread and giving it a coarse texture, we turn it into a garlic catcher – cut a clove in half and rub the cut side on the rough surface – as you would washing on an old fashioned washing board – until it is as garlicky as you like. If you are making plain bruschetta, rub with garlic, sprinkle with salt and pour over olive while it is still hot.
For bruschetta al pomodoro, chop one tomato per person into a bowl, rip in some basil (basil-sniffing is another summer sport), sprinkle with salt, add a good amount of oil and let it sit for a few minutes before piling as much of it as possible on garlic-rubbed toast. For courgette bruschetta, cut one courgette per person into 2mm slices longways, sear on a hot griddle pan until soft with embossed with char marks, then toss in a bowl with ripped basil, salt, olive oil and just a little red-wine or sherry vinegar, then pile on to the garlic-rubbed toast.