Piennelo tomatoes on Mount Vesuvius

Piennelo DOP breed of tomato only grows on Mount Vesuvius, where this was taken in November 2014.

The hackery in the name of this post comes from both a mid-pandemic revelation of mine on how to employ tomatoes at lock-down lunch and the pull-it-out-of-you-know-where nature of the whole thing. Truth be told I had been working this week on two other posts: one a general check-in on what’s happening in Chianti Classico, based on a couple of Zoom seminars and tastings I recently attended, and the other a piece on wine making on the tiny Mediteranean island of Pantelleria, which I traveled to in 2019, when there was traveling. For a combination of real world and psychological reasons, I have completed neither after a few false starts. Let’s see if I don’t get them up next week.

One of the reasons I didn’t get my work done this week was that I was out socializing on Thursday. By socializing, I mean I stood at one end of my friend’s porch, while he stood at the other and we each sipped on a can of beer and tried not to speak moistly. I took dereliction of my GFR duties that afternoon to keep our date because we had moved twice already due to bad weather and was relatively warm and sunny day. My friend made the mistake of asking me how I was, which I answered with a long pause and then the monosyllable, “fine.” That’s true: I am fine and I am lucky not to have any real complaints, like poor health or loss of a job, or any number of bad things many of my fellow humans are struggling with. On the other hand, the way I said “fine” also left some room for interpretation, as that word sometimes does. I am, after all, part of a massive global psychological experiment in social isolation. Yes, it’s true that I can Zoom and talk on the phone with friends, or stand around in the Canadian winter outdoors and hang out two meters away from a friend, but frankly it all kind of sucks, and as much as I love my nuclear family, it would be nice to hang out with some other people indoors and maybe even touch them. I was going to write it would be nice to give and receive a hug, but at this point a handshake might blow my mind.

Anyway, what all of this has to do with tomatoes, is the lockdown lunch routine at my house. Our youngest is back at school every day (we pray until July), but my two older kids are in high school and are home every other day, and just gone in the morning on the other days. My wife has an ‘essential’ job, so she sometimes actually goes to work and sometimes works from home. While there are often leftovers in the fridge that we’ll sometimes all share, most of the time each of the four of us prefer to make our own lunches.

My wife prefers the sort of ‘vegan until 6’ bowls of vegetables and pulses she used to find in the food courts downtown. My teenagers like to pimp up Ramen noodles, steam and fry frozen Asian dumplings, or make some variation on grilled cheese. (Whatever they make invariably requires several pots and pans, a long running of the exhaust fan on the stove hood, and a sink full of dirty dishes – which they can’t do after lunch because they have class.) And what I like are sandwiches. Sandwiches, besides being delicious, are fast to make, require few kitchen implements and, at most, a plate and a cutting board to clean-up. They are efficient and give me more time in the workday not to write posts about Chianti Classico and Pantelleria.

The sandwiches I like have lots of things in them, Dagwood-style, so they comprise a meal unto themselves. There a kind of salad with meat and/or cheese between two pieces of bread, or occasionally a tortilla wrap. Condiments and dressings like pickles, sliced onions or olives come and go, but lettuce or a substitute leafy green and tomato are a constant (unless, of course, the toaster oven is involved, but even then baby arugula and melted cheese go really well together). And here’s the rub: as much as I require the acid kick and coloid texture of a sliced tomato in my sandwich, I don’t want the whole of a regular sized tomato in there. That’s too much, and room needs to be left for the other things.

Early in the pandemic I did a thing I am not proud of at lunch. I would slice half a tomato and put the other half in the fridge. Actually, what I would do before putting the other half in the fridge is leave it on the cutting board, in the hope that some other member of the family would rescue it. This worked most of the time when my wife was home, as she could incorporate it relatively easily into quinoa bowl, or whatever. But it never worked when it was just me and the teenagers, and sooner or later, lying cut side down on a small plate, the half of tomato would end up in the fridge. Putting half of a tomato in the fridge is a mendacious act that fools no one. Nobody wants that tomato half, which in a matter of minutes will turn mealy from the cold. I would tell myself I might use it the next day in my sandwich, but I never did, and it would invariably end up in the food scraps bin.

My tomato food waste routine continued for several months through the spring into the summer before I had a revelation and stopped it entirely. In her wonder bowls, my wife would often include cherry or grape tomatoes, so we almost always had some in the kitchen. They also made refreshing snack, or a plate garnish for a sandwich. I was making a wrap with some left over grilled pork one lunchtime when I thought I would add some of the grape tomatoes, sliced in half, almost like a rudimentary salsa. Then it hit me: why stop at halves? Why not take a small serrated knife and slice the grape tomatoes? I remembered a food field trip I took a few years ago to Campania in Southern Italy. (You can read about it here.) The tomato-crazy Neapolitans had, in the 19th century, bred a particular kind of cherry tomato, the piennelo, to grow in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius. What was so special about this tomato, which is now protected by a DOP designation, was that it a) ripened late to be picked well into November, and b) was robust enough to last in the pantry of every kitchen in Naples throughout the winter until a new crop of fresh tomatoes could be harvested. The point, germane to my pandemic sandwiches, being the Neapolitans used cherry tomatoes like normal ones, and so could I. And so I do, and encourage you to try, if you don’t yet, especially in winter when the little grape tomatoes are the only ones available with any flavour.

And that’s all I got.