Frank is a thoughtful man who rarely smiles. He also happens to be the owner and chef of Le Symphony, a favourite café of mine. His menu is limited but his omelettes are a dream, and when I am in Brittany it is with him that we – Bernard and I – have lunch most Thursdays. My omelette, which usually has a mushroom filling, is listed on the menu as accompanied either by chips or by green salad. One day last summer, and for no specific reason, I asked if a tomato might be added as a supplement to, or instead of, the lettuce.
What started as a simple request turned into a joke, and then into a challenge. Accordingly, it was not long before I was asking for the infamous supplement each week. Frank always refused. “With the omelette comes a green salad — tomatoes are not on the menu.” A response that was difficult to take as clearly there were tomatoes around but prioritised for other dishes. He was adamant. I would have been happy to pay the extra for my indulgence but this was never considered.
Before I continue I should make a confession. I love tomatoes and have done so for years. It is not just their colour, shape and smell that I adore. In all their culinary forms their taste, which varies with their preparation, gives me enormous pleasure. Fried, grilled, baked, puréed, stuffed, sliced or sun-dried – all are delicious. I still remember one particular plate of thinly-sliced, freshly-picked tomatoes, served with a simple vinaigrette and sprinkled with finely chopped chives. It was a baking midday and I ate it with Rohan, who was not yet my wife, at a restaurant in the south of France nearly fifty years ago. Asking Frank for a tomato was no trivial request, the request had an emotional component. But he, of course, was unaware of all this.
Back at the Sympho, as it is called by the local teenagers, feeling exasperated after months of getting nowhere, I started to bring in my own tomatoes. The instant that Frank or the waitress had taken my order and turned to go to the kitchen, I would take my smuggled tomato from my bag and place it ostentatiously on the table. By the expression on Frank’s face, it was clear that my act of defiance did not go unnoticed.
Over the months Frank suffered in silence, serving me with a pained expression and with his lips curled. After a while it had become too much and needed to end. But how?
A few weeks ago, as the meal was ending, Frank brought over our customary coffees. When he had left I spotted by my saucer, a fine tomato, which he must have left discretely, when setting down the cup. A special present had been laid as a peace offering. I burst out laughing and with a mixture of gratitude and relief shouted over to him, “A thousand thanks to you,” and then, “touché.”
Since then, I have occasionally been the butt of Frank’s asides – “Did you want a tomato in your coffee?” – but the war game that had got out-of-hand is over. And yesterday, when I popped into the Sympho for a hot chocolate, he greeted me with a warm two-handed handshake, almost a hug, and a broad smile. Frank’s ingenuity in resolving the tomato wars has left us on the best of terms. This peace he has engineered is a real relief.
4 thoughts on “Tomato wars”
I recall how my grandmother, who first set up home in the North of England more than a century ago, used to tell us with what astonishment the arrival of the tomato on the market was greeted. What was one supposed to do with it? Was it a vegetable or a fruit? If it was a fruit, should it not be eaten with sugar and perhaps cream? People who tried tomatoes with sugar apparently gave up in disgust or despair. I see that they don’t feature on your list of preferences. Have we missed something?
I think tomatoes have this impact on people. I have loved them since being a child, a passion enhanced when I spent 3 months “tomaten flucken” on a German farm one summer. For the last 30 years I have nearly always had grilled tomatoes on toast for two reasons. The first is that it cuts out an unnecessary early morning decision (what am i going to have for breakfast?) Second I love rich smelling organic tomatoes on the rich smelling vine – M&S ones from Portugal are my favourites at the moment. Did you all want to know this? Will the editor let you know this? I don’t know! Ed, it’s not offensive, just inconsequential and time wasting.
Au contraire Ian, I am as big a fan of the tomato as you are, and particularly those on the vine where you get that distinctive and utterly seductive blast of “tomato-on-the-vine” aroma when you open the pack! And the new varieties and cultivation methods have transformed that pallid, acidic winter fruit that I remember from my childhood. Tomatoes arouse such passion in both those who love them and those who hate them that Joe is lucky to have found someone who, at last, is prepared to indulge his obsession!