Summer: at last!
The hills swim with light and ripple with ears of wheat. With a constant, incantatory murmur, the yellows of straw and hay wave in the breeze beneath the blues and whites of a hot, weary sky. Small sunflowers, long starved of light, hanker after the sun’s arc through the day. Only the joyous, noisy squawking of children break this motionless silence. Some conquer the contours of the countryside from the saddle of a bike; others play interminable games of hide-and-seek, others hopscotch. In the houses, the windows are flung open, begging for the slightest breath of air that might cool things down ever so slightly. And on the warm plaster of the walls, geckos move quietly, lazily, gorged as they are on mosquitoes.
It’s the end of June, and summer has finally triumphed in the country. Lorenzo the Magnificent’s “La canzona di Bacco” (The Song of Bacchus) paints a picture of the season’s true essence, somewhere between absolute beauty, hedonistic revelry and a thinly-disguised melancholy. Quant’è bella giovinezza, che si fugge tuttavia! Chi vuole esser lieto, sia: di doman non v’è certezza”. (How beautiful is youth, which sooner or later flees. May those who want to be happy be happy: of tomorrow we can’t be sure).
Fat, ripe and juicy: the tomato embodies the essence of this season, besides providing a true symbol of the Italian summer. Like Lorenzo’s fleeting youth, it bursts with colors, heady smells, and an almost unholy sweetness.
Yet despite its inextricable ties to Italy and Italian cuisine, the tomato originated in South America, only being introduced to Italy by Christopher Colombus. Oddly enough, its initial calling in Europe was purely ornamental, as it was regarded as a plant that produced toxic fruits. The first documented uses of the tomato are connected to elixirs and love potions, as it was thought to have aphrodisiac properties. It’s not clear when Europeans started to eat it, but the change was probably due to the intuitions and the needs of farmers, who experimented with it in their vegetable gardens.
Whenever it was, that moment began one of the most durable and passionate love stories the world has known. The tomato – and today we cultivate hundreds of varieties – is not only really darn tasty; it’s also good for the health, as it contains vitamins, mineral salts and lycopene, the powerful antioxidant that lends it its red color.
The tomato took Italian cuisine by storm. It’s true what the proverb says: the tomato goes well in any sauce. Whether it’s a simple spaghetti, our pappa al pomodoro, or alongside mozzarella and basil in the classic Caprese salad; whether it’s topping a pizza, or with seasonal vegetables like cucumber, or cut into small cubes to share the top of a bruschetta with fresh onion; whether it’s spread over bread and laced with a bit of olive oil, the Italian table in summer blushes tomato red and smells of life itself.