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Cherry tomatoes and pasta - so many ways

"While the cherry tomato has been around in one way or another for centuries, its commercialization and popularization is thanks to Marks & Spencer." Danny Lewis - Smithsonian

Being a sucker for pretty photographs as you know, I had earmarked this one for a blog post. It's from one of my old delicious. magazines and shows a dish called Spaghetti with cherry tomato sauce from Valli Little. I have been putting it off though because I thought, what on earth could I say other than it's very pretty? Well it turns out quite a lot. I mean I think I have featured cherry tomatoes before and even cherry tomatoes and spaghetti, but I obviously only scratched the surface, because this is yet another one of those two ingredient things that can expand into infinity almost. Indeed Valli Little herself has another version also called Spaghetti with cherry tomato sauce, but which is different in that the first uses canned cherry tomatoes together with 'ordinary' canned tomatoes whilst the second is just fresh - but roasted - cherry tomatoes. They are actually quite different recipes with different ingredients but which can both quite rightfully be called Spaghetti with cherry tomato sauce.

Rachel Roddy, similarly combines cherry with tinned, but for her the emphasis is on the olive oil, and rather less on the tomatoes.

But before I get to the other variations I have found - so, so many - first a little bit about the cherry tomato.

The cherry tomato is in a sense the first and the last - well most recent - of the tomato clan.

"While the first tomatoes were tiny, pea-sized plants that grew in wild clusters like grapes, Central American growers transformed them into something quite different." Danny Lewis - Smithsonian

And he's not talking about modern American growers either. He's actually talking about Aztecs, Incas and the rest. When it comes to Europe it seems the first reference to a cherry tomato was in 1623 when some tomatoes were described as: ‘clusters in the form of cherries’ . However, from then on it seemed that they almost disappeared from view, in favour of larger varieties, although they were occasionally used as decoration. They certainly weren't around when Jane Grigson wrote her Vegetable Book in 1978 - a low point in the story of the commercial tomato:

"The word tomato now embraces the best and the worst of the vegetable kingdom. It means the huge, red tomatoes of the Mediterranean, that burst with sun and flavour into great curves that are firm to the centre as you cut into them. It also means the pale, underprivileged rotundity of the northern shops, the dreaded Moneymaker and similar varieties, whose only virtues are regular size and vast yield." Jane Grigson

Things have improved somewhat since then, particularly in the cherry tomato field it seems. Thanks to greenhouses and a new focus on taste. Almost every time you go into the supermarket there seems to be yet another new variety. But we still haven't really got to those luscious Mediterranean ones, unless you frequent the Queen Victoria Market, or farmer's markets where they will cost you lots. Mind you the greenhouse grown variety - which are OK if not brilliant - cost a fortune at the moment too. But to be fair it isn't tomato season.

So how did we get to the above? Well back in the 1970s the owner of Marks and Spencer's got an idea.

"At the time, cherry tomatoes were more used as a garnish than they were eaten, but he thought they might make for a good product, ... So, he reached out to his local growers as well as Israeli food scientists to develop a new, shelf-stable cherry tomato that would be sweeter than the standard ones found in supermarkets.

A British grower named Bernard Sparkes began experimenting with a variety of cherry tomato called the “Gardener’s Delight” to try and produce a commercial breed of cherry tomato, while Israeli scientists bred the seeds to grow in uniform rows and last longer on shelves. Meanwhile, Marks & Spencer began selling cherry tomatoes in its produce section, kicking off a worldwide craze for the flavorful little tomatoes," Danny Lewis - Smithsonian

And yes the craze dates from the 80s, with the Israelis taking credit - and also the Greeks from Santorini who claimed to have invented them long ago and who actually have received an EU Breed Protected status. However:

"researchers have found that the breed's small size has more to do with the nutrient-poor volcanic soil and dry climate." Danny Lewis - Smithsonian

Whoever rediscovered - not invented - the cherry tomato there is no doubt that these days, particularly in the winter months you will probably find more cherry tomatoes in the shops than normal ones. And they are the only ones I seem to be able to grow with any kind of success. Yes I can get Marmande and Ox-Heart and other Mediterranean types, but they never seem to grow for me.

Anyway today you are just as likely to find a recipe using cherry tomatoes as 'ordinary' ones, and mums must think they are the answer to a mother's prayer of what to put in the lunchbox.

So what indeed do all those cooks do with cherry tomatoes and pasta. So many things is the answer. Perhaps I should start with a dish which I gather was a tik-tok sensation. It began in Finland and spread around the world like wildfire. It's called Baked feta pasta and it seems to have been the first recipe from a lady called Jenni when she began her blog called Liemessä. Apparently it immediately went viral with sales of feta rising by 300% in Finland. She describes it as:

"Oven baked feta, way too much olive oil, burning hot chili and soft bursting cherry tomatoes. In the oven they turned into an amazing pasta sauce by itself. Just add fresh basil leaves and italian durum wheat pasta. Nowdays I throw a couple of garlic cloves in the baking dish too."

And here it is - that's a block of feta that she roasts whole:

Cherry tomatoes, pasta and cheese is, of course a winning combination, and here are some recipes which have rung the changes on those three: Cherry tomato, olive and goat's cheese pasta from Donna Hay; Gemelli with anchovies, tomatoes and Mascarpone from Nigella Lawson; Spaghetti with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and basil from Angela Hartnett and Pasta tomatoes from Nigel Slater.

Such a simple combination of ingredients is of course an absolute must for Nigel Slater who has four more offerings: Roast tomato and basil orichiette; Linguine with nduja and tomatoes; Orichiette with roast tomato sauce; Charred tomatoes and onions pasta.

Nigel Slater is a pretty simple cook - he has made a long career out of it, but he's not alone. Here are the very, very simple ones to try - mostly very similar in concept and execution. Which leads one to wonder who is stealing from who and anyway is this really a recipe? Couldn't you think of this yourself? When I see this kind of recipe I wonder why people don't cook or think they can't. I mean basically you're just heating up some cherry tomatoes with basil, garlic and oil and stirring it through pasta. A toddler could do this. As long as mum was watching that he or she didn't burn themselves. No cutting involved. Pasta with 15 minute burst cherry sauce from Epicurious; Burst cherry tomato pasta from Bon Appétit. I think these two publications are related and this may well be the same recipe in fact, although credit is given to two different people - just different pasta. Taste has Cherry tomato and basil spaghetti and this month's Coles Magazine, as if to demonstrate how common the combination of cherry tomatoes and pasta is has Veggie pasta with cheesy garlic bread. It's squarely aimed at the non-cook as it has at least two Coles products in the mix, although you do have to shred some zucchini. I think that if you can't manage that you can even buy packets of spiralised zucchini now. Then the It's Not Complicated lady offers Roasted cherry tomato pasta and last of all Jamie - yes, of course Jamie, has Simple summer spaghetti. Mostly the difference is just how many tomatoes and what kind of pasta to use.

Which leaves me with Ottolenghi. Well he is half-Italian and his first recipe is a very straightforward, Spaghetti with cherry tomato sauce, but unlike most, he cooks his tomatoes for a long time - an hour - and he uses a lot of them - a kilo for 400g of spaghetti. Oh - and there are chillies of course, but you can leave them out. His second offering though is more trendy, if that's the right word, because it's Miso, tomato and oregano pasta but it still only takes 15 minutes and it looks gorgeous. But that's the thing about cherry tomatoes isn't it? They just do. Which is why, initially they were just used for decoration.

Fundamentally with those two ingredients cherry tomatoes and pasta you can have fun adding, subtracting, roasting, stewing, stir-frying, doing nothing with the tomatoes - because I see there is not a fresh tomato pasta recipe there. Then you can add all or some of the usual suspects - cheese, basil, ham, garlic, olives, anchovies - or slightly more unusual ones like miso or fancy chillies to make something so utterly delicious you will wonder why you haven't done it before. But then you probably have.


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