Whenever my family gets together and the subject of tomatoes comes up, one of us is sure to bring up the tomatoes we all once had in Almería. The Almería tomatoes are something of a legend in my family. We were on vacation there and tucked in for lunch at a place that was more of an old man’s bar than an actual restaurant. It had a few well-used card tables covered in paper tablecloths and metal napkin dispensers, the kind of place where you could reasonably expect to be fed authentic food in generous portions, but not the kind of place you expect to be talking about almost fifteen years later. That’s seems to be the way it goes with Spanish bars.
It was one of the few times when we were all together in Spain. My parents, my sister, my grandmother, and my aunt and uncle who live in Germany. I don’t remember why we decided to go to this particular place, which is unusual because we all consider the matter of where to have lunch as pretty much the most important decision of the day. Choosing a place to have lunch, and more important, what to order there, is an art form that involves both keen observation and intuition, but in this case it came down to plain luck–as we walked in, we noticed the people at the table beside us had ordered a big tomato salad. It looked good, so we did the same.
The tomatoes came sliced on a metal tray and covered in olive oil. Nothing else. Everyone added their own salt. They were, in a word, spectacular.
The first tray disappeared quickly. So we ordered another one and then it was gone, too. It takes real vision to realize, in the heat of the moment, that while it seems a little silly to order three trays of tomatoes while there is still a lot of other food coming, the fact of the matter is that when something is that good you have to seize the moment. These things don’t happen all that often. So when my father ordered a third tray there were, initially, some dissenters among us but in the end we all realized it was exactly the right thing to do. Chapeau.
A couple of years ago, my girlfriend and I had our own private tomato moment. We were at a restaurant in Zaragoza and the waiter recommended the tomato salad. He seemed unusually enthusiastic and plus, we had noticed quite a few tables around us were having it.
What came was unlike any tomatoes I had ever had. They were pinky in color, very fleshy and didn’t have very many seeds. The first the thing I noticed was a silky texture quite different from other tomatoes. Then the flavor. The flavor elicited sounds from both of us that, in retrospect, were probably inappropriate in a family restaurant. It was an epiphany.
The waiter, also the restaurant owner, must have seen us in our moment of not-so-quiet enjoyment because he came over and asked, smiling confidently, whether we liked the tomatoes. Really what he was saying was, “Feel free to shower me with your praise now,” which we did, enthusiastically. When I ran out of superlatives (mixed with the odd expletive for emphasis), I turned to the practical and asked him what they were called.
“Tomates de Barbastro.”
Barbastro is a town north of Zaragoza famous for its wine, Somontano. Luckily, however, they still have some land left to grow tomatoes. It has to be said that Zaragoza, where we lived at the time, has some of Spain’s best orchards and Zaragoza tomatoes are outstanding. But the Barbastro tomatoes are in a different league. It took me a while to find them in the market because it’s a small crop and they’re also three to four times the price of regular tomatoes so they’re not popular with everyone, especially since the cheap ones are so damn good to begin with.
I also learned that they’re actually called Tomate Rosa de Huesca because they were developed in Huesca and are grown all across the province, not just in Barbastro. As far as export goes, they’ve got two knocks against them. They’re not all the same size and shape, which makes them less efficient to pack, and they have a very thin skin, so they’re delicate.
The other thing that doesn’t help them in terms of sales is that they’re not perfect like the plastic-looking fruit you see in most grocery stores. They look like something that might have come from your own garden, with some rough patches and maybe some streaks of bright green, maybe even a little dirt. Both of those statements should naturally be received as recommendations of the highest level, but not everyone sees it that way, which is surprising, but there you are.
And so, a year later and my sister Pilar was going to be in town. It was early September and I hadn’t seen the Barbastro tomatoes for quite a while. On the day she was scheduled to arrive, I went from market to market in the hopes of finding some and at the fourth one I tried, I found a stall that had exactly two Barbastro tomatoes left. Victory. These tomatoes are big, so there would be plenty for three of us. Since it was so late in the season I wondered whether they’d be as good as the best, but there was nothing left but to wait and see.
Pilar’s reaction when she first tasted the Barbastro tomatoes was unequivocal. A long pause indicated a moment of private reverie. I don’t recall exactly what she said but it was either religious or profane. Possibly both at the same time, which would have been perfectly appropriate.
Had we been at a restaurant, we would have ordered more, but sadly, that’s all there was.