Food of the gods

(From Living Within, August)

Entering into the spirit of this sporting season and as small part of the cultural festivities I am dedicating this month’s column to The Olympics and theming my culinary advice accordingly. I will admit to being a little slow each quadrennial to embrace the athleticism of The Games; in past years I have concentrated in the early stages, before my addiction to watching reaches the point at which I could happily spectate at lawn mowing if it were an Olympic sport, on theming the family food in keeping with the host country: lemons and olives featured heavily in 2004 for Athens and noodles and rice for Beijing. It would be unimaginative of me to find nothing appropriate for an Olympic year hosted in London and yet in the face of the recent greyness of the heavens (as I write, the gods of Olympus perhaps still lost on a bus en route to The Village and thus unable just yet to smile down upon us) I am still dreaming of foreign heat-soaked lands in an attempt to enter into the spirit of summer let alone the Olympics.

To ground myself back in our capital city I have carried out a little research into ancient times in an attempt to seek inspiration and connection. Unfortunately, the gods themselves are famous for not eating food, existing as they do on supplies of ambrosia (and I’m not talking creamed rice) and nectar. So bear with me as I give you a little potted, food and sport related, Ancient Greek history; I warn you now, the links are tenuous - this is, I’m told, “squinty scholarship” (where ‘everything can look like something if you just squint hard enough’).

Hippomene et Atalante ~Stefano della Bella, MMOA

In Ancient Greece, the apple (or apple like fruit) was considered a symbol of love. When Atalanta, fleet of foot, much desired but reluctant to be tied down, declared she would only marry a suitor who could beat her in a running race there seemed little chance of anyone winning her hand. Hippomenes, exceptionally keen, decided his best chance lay in tactics. Given three golden apples by his supporter Aphrodite he threw these strategically during the course of his public race with Atalanata and she, unable to resist the heroic feat of attempting to catch them all, failed to outrun him in pursuit of the final apple and lost the contest.

Aphrodite and the ancient greeks would not have been familiar with the tomato but other cultures have labelled this vegetably fruit the “love apple”, perhaps because of its colour or its occasional resemblance to a heart, and on this flimsy hook I am hanging this column and will write, as perhaps I always intended, in praise of the tomato - a London 2012 embodiment of the ancient greek apple and not, as far as I am aware, otherwise sponsored. The tomato should now be performing at its Olympic best, at least anywhere a poly-tunnel has been connected with its training schedule - I cannot answer for the allotment and back-garden disappointments of my near neighbours who laid their chances entirely in the lap of the Team GB weather gods.

We depend upon the tomato to enliven so many dishes. Tinned for convenience or for use out of season it forms an essential element in numerous and diverse sauces. Fresh, even when not in its prime, we use it to help a hamburger or a sandwich go down more easily, but how to get the best out of a tomato? Rose Gray of River Café fame once commented that “a tomato doesn’t taste like a tomato without salt” and I am inclined to agree with this slightly non-sensical statement and would normally add a little grinding of black pepper to my otherwise naked tomatoes too.

Tomatoes in August are so plentiful that we could run out of ideas for them if it were not for the fact that their flavour at this time of year, when they are also happily least expensive, is so good that you could almost live off them. They are at their best when fully ripe - heavy, juicy, sweet with just a touch of acidity. Never store them in the fridge where their flavours will be deadened, keep them at room temperature and allow those that are not purchased fit to burst to ripen in the open air - no sunny window ledge required - they can ripen happily away from the vine given a little time but do your best to choose well in the first place, look for tomatoes grown for flavour rather than looks or ability to withstand rough travel.

The simplest salad can be made from chopped or sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper and drizzled with some good olive oil; you could gild the lily by adding some fresh basil or oregano leaves although almost any tender young herb would be good or you could add a few drops of Balsamic vinegar. Once salt has been added tomatoes will begin to give off water and so cannot be left to sit for too long without going a little soggy, but if you have left-over tomato salad it can be cooked gently in a saucepan or in a roasting dish in a moderate oven until the tomatoes begin to break down and meld with the seasonings and oil and used to enhance any number of other dishes - served as a relish/sauce with barbecued meat (Paul at 'The Game Larder’ in Claygate has a BBQ selection second to none at this time of the year) or stirred through some freshly cooked pasta for example.

For use in sauces, tomatoes are often best skinned and relieved of a few of their seeds. Cut a small cross in the bottom of your tomato, plunge into a bowl of scalding water for about 30 seconds or until the skin starts to peel from the cut crosses, take out immediately and refresh in very cold water (to stop the tomatoes from cooking and to make it easier to handle them), cut out the top 'plug’ of tomato core and stem and peel the skin away from the cuts that you made earlier (they should come away with ease). Cut the skinned tomato in half, width-wise, and squeeze or tease the seeds gently out from the middle. The tomatoes are now ready to be chopped and used for a soup or a sauce or for anything where you do not want the skins and seeds to get in the way.

All that remains now is for us to look to whatever gods may have influence at this time of Olympian effort and hope that their countenances are favourable and that we do not displease and that a good time is had by all, even if your tickets are not the ones you wanted and women’s football is really not your thing!

Erica x

“The trumpet soon gave signal for the race
and both of them crouching flashed quickly forth
and skimmed the surface of the sandy course
with flying feet. You might even think those two
could graze the sea with unwet feet and pass
over the ripened heads of standing grain.”

~Ovid, Metamorphoses