Tomatoes in Switzerland: A Tip-Sheet
I am faced with the same question every summer, ‘I wish I could find some decent tomatoes here, where do you buy yours?’ To which I answer…and this predictably creates a confused, often contorted facial reaction, ‘The best tomatoes in Switzerland are between March and May!’
Ok, I will admit summer time is the best time for tomatoes – but only if you’re growing your own and live in an area blessed with a lot of summer sunshine. I will also admit the tomatoes I am referring to are not Swiss at all, but in fact they are Italian – and mostly from Sicily or Sardegna where the people know a thing or two about growing (and eating) tasty tomatoes.
Tomatoes need plenty of sunshine to develop their full flavor potential …and I’m not talking about the sugars which usually only account for about 3% of the total weight. No, what makes tomatoes so appealing to many are their high levels of glutamic acid – a savory acid more common to meat than plants. It is precisely this acid which creates the necessary balance of sugars and aromatic compounds. Without glutamic acid tomatoes taste…well, really bland and almost starchy.
Early season Italian tomatoes thrive under a warm winter sun – especially on the islands of Sicily and Sardegna, where the mineral-rich sandy soil, warm winds and rare early frosts help tomatoes mature very early in the year. These tomatoes are planted in August and ready for harvest from February through May – perfect timing to fill an obvious void and meet a large demand from discerning Italians. Contrast these growing conditions with Swiss tomatoes: planted in the Spring, lots of early-season frost, limited sunshine with rapid maturation during the hot summer and a harvest in July and August. The Swiss tomatoes generally do not have enough time to fully develop their acids and instead burst forth with sugar and water in June and July. This is the main reason many Swiss tomatoes may taste…well, rather neutral.
I will be one of the first to admit the most succulent and flavorful tomatoes are vine-ripened. Unfortunately, vine-ripened tomatoes are also highly perishable, which is why supermarkets almost always carry tomatoes which have been picked immature, then artificially ripened from a blast of ethylene gas in special warming rooms. Artificially ripened tomatoes never have the texture, aroma and taste of vine-ripened fruits…and they never have a chance to develop that important glutamic acid.
When buying tomatoes at the market, always chose firm, well-shaped tomatoes with fragrant aromas and bright colors. They should always be free of blemishes, heavy for their size and give ever so slightly to a bit of pressure. When you get your tomatoes home, always store them at room temperature…they should never be refrigerated because the cold temperatures will make the flesh pulpy and the flavor will noticeably diminish. Tomatoes keep just fine at room temperature for 3-7 days depending on the maturity of the tomato and the warmth and humidity of your environment.
There are many varieties to look for throughout the year in Switzerland. Here are some of my favorites beginning with those which are available early in the year:
Pachino Marmande or Costoloto
These are perhaps the tastiest of all tomatoes. The name Pachino comes from a small town in the Syracuse region of Sicily. The Marmande and Costoloto varieties are ribbed and often best purchased when the tops are green and the bottoms red; they will turn completely red after a day or two at room temperature. They have a sweet flavor with noticeable acids, and a very long shelf life – especially the early-season ones. These tomatoes are not cooking tomatoes. Enjoy them raw for maximum flavor, and to benefit from their high vitamin C content and rich antioxidant properties.
These little sweet gems also come from the Pachino region…and are one of the few Italian varieties with an AOC declaration. They are grown and harvested the entire year, but the ones reaching Switzerland from April through May are the best. I consider these little delights as the perfect salad tomato, although they are also excellent when quickly sautéed and added to a pasta dish or served alongside fish.
As the name may imply, these tomatoes come from Sardegna. They are small- to medium-sized round tomatoes. They are best from March through June. Like the Marmande and Costoloto varieties, these tomatoes are best purchased with a bit of green on the top, then allowed to mature to a completely red color. They have a thick skin – which can be annoying to some, and a high amount of acid, which pairs very well when enjoyed with a fat (cheese, oil, etc.).
A special Swiss variety available for only a month or so from July through mid-August. They are large, pinkish-red round tomatoes with incredible sweetness and little acid. They are pleasant and refreshing to eat raw.
These large meaty tomatoes are quite flavorful…they also have quite a lot of acid which is surprising to find in a Swiss tomato. They are available from July through September.
These tomatoes are large – I’ve actually seen one weighing-in over 1 kg. – bright red and slightly elliptical. They are quite useful in making tomato sauces. The optimal time to buy them is from July to September.
Plum Tomatoes (Peretti or Pelati)
These egg-shaped red or yellow tomatoes are the ones typically used when canning tomatoes or making sun-dried tomatoes. They can have a nice pleasant taste, but too often, they are mass produced in large greenhouses and turn out rather tasteless. The Italian version is called San Marzano, which will occasionally make it to Swiss markets. They are best later in the year – from July until September.
There are always plenty of small tomatoes on hand…and many different varieties as well. They can come in various shapes and colors and often differ quite a lot in their flavor. If shopping at the market, always ask to try one before buying…your taste buds will guide you in your ultimate buying decision.
If you have the room and want to try your hand in growing your own tomatoes, then perhaps you may want to consider a different variety. One place to look for seeds is the wonderful Tomandi.ch website, which sells several hundred types of tomatoes…My favorite (although I’ve never tried one) is the Viagra tomato found under the Fleischtomaten section…but it already sold out this year.