On the
tomato trail

Every summer in a small town in southern Italy, the smell of tomatoes hangs in the air amid the excitement of the first crop of the season. This is the tomato harvest.

We’re driving across the Gargano mountain range in southern Italy. Past mediaeval hill towns, terraces of almond trees and ancient olive grows that roll gently down to the sparkling blue Adriatic Sea below.

It’s the middle of July and we’re making our journey in a classic Fiat 124 Spider. Roof down, the cool sea breeze masks the intensity of the summer sun. The inland plains of Foggia are our destination. We’re going to see –and taste – the first tomatoes of the harvest season where we will explore the process of how sun-dried and semi-dried tomatoes are produced.

My guide is someone who knows the tomato business well. Antonio Cardella is the commercial director of Fiordelisi, an artisanal food producer that specialises in sun dried and semi-dried tomatoes. The trained lawyer moved from Sicily to Foggia 35 years ago. He has spent his life working with tomatoes. A proud grin spreads across his face when we call him the tomato king.

Accompanying us on our tomato adventure is lifelong foodie Marco Silvagni. Marco is the co-founder of Bontà Italia, a UK-based distributor of fine Italian produce including the exceptional Casalinga range. Marco is retracing a road trip he made 26 years ago, when he toured Puglia and the Amalfi Coast in a Fiat 127 Sport while as a student.

As we near the tomato fields, Marco and Antonio’s excitement builds. Despite the years they’ve been doing this, their passion has not diminished. The earthy, herby, viney smell of tomatoes cuts through the thick summer air.

Nature in Foggia has conspired to create a wonderful serendipity for tomato growing, one where the climate, the land and the people have come together in perfect harmony. Indeed, so imbedded are tomatoes to this region that the farmers of Fiordelisi have been growing here for hundreds of years. But it is the enterprising current generation of owners who started to dry tomatoes commercially, allowing them to be preserved and sold internationally. We’re hereto follow this process, from field to fork.

Our first stop is Fiordelisi’s growing fields. Antonio stops the car, picks up a handful of soil, and says: “The tomatoes that grow here are very natural. This earth wants tomatoes to grow. It is full of natural fertilisers so if you drop a seed, it will flourish. It’s really because of the location that the tomatoes do so well. We experience a dry heat, and there’s always a little bit of wind, so you don’t get any humidity. That means insects and fungus are less likely to infect the plants.”

Marco brings out a little machine to test what he calls the brix of the tomato, its natural sugar level. Freshly picked tomatoes are measured on a scale of 1 to 10, Marco says the literal sweet spot is 7.2. “The higher the brix content, the sweeter and fleshier the tomato is and that means the sauce will be thicker. Cheaper tomatoes have a lower brix content, which leads to watery sauces,” he expertly adds.

The process is reassuringly hands on. Tomatoes are picked and sun dried in the summer and kept in chillers, ready to be processed on demand. After harvesting, the tomatoes are transported a short distance to the drying fields where they are carefully selected and washed. Here workers skilfully butterfly them with razor-sharp knives, before laying them out on the vast rows of tables to dry in the hot Italian sun. It’s a beautiful sight. “With a plum tomato, which is the one we use for our sun-dried product, it has to be done by hand. You have to cut it right bang in the middle. It’s an irregular elongated shape so a machine couldn’t do it,” insists Antonio.

Next is the salt. Spraying the tomatoes with salt after cutting is hugely important, he explains. “The earlier you put on the salt the better because it has two important functions. First, to make the drying process faster. Second, it will keep away insects.”

A day earlier we visited the sea salt pans of Margherita di Savoia, a short drive away. This is where Fiordelisi’s salt comes from, and it’s as famous for its salt as it is for its colony of pink flamingos.Causeways criss-cross huge pools where it takes the water four years to evaporate, leaving behind dried beds of pure white salt. “It’s the second biggest sea salt area in the world. There are more than 40km of pools,” remarks Antonio.
Back at the drying tables, we taste a few tomatoes that are in the process of being dried for four days. They are divine; piquant, sweet and rich. After less than a week drying in the sun the tomatoes go to Fiordelisi’s factory a few kilometres away where they go through a comprehensive process before being ready for delivery to customers around the world.

We make the short drive along winding tree-lined roads to the factory. Before we’re allowed on to the factory floor, we dress in unflattering-but-necessary protective clothing and hats. The first surprise is how few machines there are. This is a place where people are crucial to the finished product.

The raw, sun-dried tomatoes go through numerous stages to ensure they are free of foreign objects that could contaminate them. It’s very hands on, with workers discarding tomatoes that don’t have the right colour, shape or texture. The few machines there are have very specific jobs to do that couldn’t be done by hand, such as the sieve, X-ray and metal detector.

For some customers, the tomatoes are ready to be bagged, but as Marco explains, there’s a huge demand for the ready-to-eat market. So for this product the tomatoes are sent off to be rehydrated with water from the well (which is later reused to water the fields). They are then put in industrial ovens at a low temperature to dry off the excess water.

In the next room, the pungent smell of fresh garlic and herbs fills the air. It is here where the tomatoes are marinated in herbs and bottled in oil for an exclusive Bontà Italia recipe. We sneak one from the batch. Marco makes satisfying oohing and aahing noises. I think they’ve passed his taste test. “I could eat them all day,” he purrs. Now that they’re packed, they can last up to three years.

While we’re touring the factory, we stop by the cherry peppers that are being hand-piped with goats’ cheese. “These are from our Casalinga range,” beams Marco, as he passes me one to try. His enthusiasm is infectious. The cherry peppers are delicious. Marco visits the factory four times a year, which might seem excessive but he’s exacting in his standards. “We won’t rest until it’s right.”

After the factory tour, it’s time for a typically Italian lunch. Our hosts are preparing a Southern Italian feast of Orecchiette pasta, bruschetta with sun-dried peppers, Caprese salad and Stracciatella di bufala cheese with basil. They laugh, joke, sample the ingredients. This is clearly their favourite time of the day. The food is simple, unfussy, delicious. However, the undisputed star of the show for me is our antipasti of sundried tomatoes, made only a few metres away from where we’re sat.