Tomatoes I Have Known

Not perfect, except when it comes to taste: Tomate Rosa de Huesca. Photo ©Mike Randolph

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.


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9 Responses to Tomatoes I Have Known

  1. Don Sequestrado July 5, 2012 at 22:20 #

    My Tomato bliss. Small family run cafe in Valencia Sep 2007, just went in because they had internet PC’s. Got a bit peckish, and ordered a slice of Tortilla, which came with a few quarters of tomato

    In my life, 55 years, this is still the most memorable tasting fruit/vegetable it has been my pleasure to experience. On my many visits to Spain since then I still buy tomatoes on a regular basis in the hope of once more finding this taste. But alas no. I actually know Barbastro having spent some time around Huesca and Zaragoza.

    I’ve told many people about this Valencia tomatoes’ taste, and now you confirm for me that these taste bombs do really exist and my quest has been revitalised. Thanks

  2. Mike Randolph July 6, 2012 at 14:26 #

    Thanks for your comment, Don. The first on my two-day-old blog.

    Bliss is right. When you have a truly great tomato, you don’t forget it! May your quest bear more unforgettable fruit.


  3. sandradan1 October 5, 2013 at 17:24 #

    Our tomatoes this year are still green, not sure why they won’t ripen. Your photos make me feel hungry! SD

    • Mike Randolph October 24, 2013 at 14:10 #

      I would let them ripen up inside at this point…

  4. Ken - Totally Spain January 21, 2015 at 13:37 #

    Hey Mike

    Just discovered your excellent blog this morning even though we’ve been following you on Twitter for a while I think.
    I love this piece on the Barbastro tomatoes. They were the highlight of mine and my family’s trip to the Pyrenees last summer. We stayed in Benasque and Vielha and everywhere we went we encountered Barbastro tomatoes. The first were tried at a lunch in the plaza in Ainsa (lovely village) on the way to Benasque and we were hooked from the first bite. More expensive than regular tomatoes as you say but well worth the money. Mustn’t forget the wonderful ceps too. My God, they were amazing also. The food in Aragon is easily among the best I have tried in Spain especially in the Aragon Pyrenees.

    Thanks a keep up the good work

    • Mike Randolph January 26, 2015 at 14:36 #

      Hi Ken, thanks for your comment. Yes, they are amazing! Maybe some people can’t understand why tomatoes could be a highlight of a trip, but I can! Here is a shot of Ainsa looking a little more cold than it was when you were there in summer…

      Hope you had some cheese in Benasque.


  5. Jakob March 18, 2018 at 22:53 #

    It seems every year or two someone leaves a comment about this amazing tomato. So this year I want to tune in and tell my story. I was there 3 or 4 years ago, traveling from Bilbao to Benasque, hiking in the Pyrenäen etc. A couple of times we saw the tomatoes in small vegetable stores and I am pretty sure at the beginning of our trip we ordered a tomato salad as an sidedish and without knowing we were already blown away by the taste.
    Then we bought our first one in a store and ate it at the camp site. Awesome! And what really surprised me: the fruits are not evenly red, they have actually green spots and we thought, maybe we have to skip these parts because they are hard and tasteless. I don’t have to tell you how wrong we were.
    So 2 years later, we live in Germany and did not travel to Spain again, I really wanted to have this tasty experience again. And we contacted the website of one of the farmers. They do Mailorder in Spain, so the question was how much more would it cost to send them to Germany. After a brief email conversation we found out it wasn’t worth it. The price tripled and they told us, they had really bad experience sending to other countries, because they arrive pretty beaten up.
    So my last resort: I will grow them myself this year. Last year I collected some experience with a couple of tomato plants on my balcony. Then I ordered the semen on eBay. The company I bought them from is actually located on the Canary Islands, I hope they sent the right one and did not cheat. So in 2-3 weeks from now I will start to grow them and if there are only 2 or 3 tomatoes at the end of the season I will be sooooooo happy.

    • Mike Randolph March 19, 2018 at 12:40 #

      Thanks for your comment Jakob. Good luck with the gardening! One thing for next time you’re in Spain: buy a tomato that you *know* is the real thing and save the seeds. I sent some to friends in Canada and it worked great. Benasque is a great spot. Delicious cheese, too. 🙂


  1. Madrid para Comérselo - Spain. By Mike Randolph - July 31, 2012

    […] a tour of the tomato orchard. José grows two varieties of tomato, rosa de la Vega, similar to the rosa de Huesca, and morado de Aragón. We picked a few ripe ones and ate them like apples, backing away from the […]

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