In the latest in her series on historic cooking methods and foodstuffs, food writer and historian Bee Wilson looks back at the arcane roots of a now commonplace dish: stuffed tomatoes
Sometimes, the cooking of past centuries feels a world away. People ate different ingredients, and prepared them using weird, alien implements. Who, now, would dream of eating mock turtle or brown Windsor soup? And if someone handed us a salamander, we would likely have no clue what to do with it (it was a long iron implement used to grill the top of gratins).
There are moments, though, when you read a historic cookbook and feel there is no distance at all between past and present. There have always been cooks who used ingenuity to make something delicious. Some 19th century recipes are still fresh as paint.
Take stuffed tomatoes. These are something I love to eat in the summer, ideally at room temperature on a hot evening, with a glass of rosé and some good bread. I’d always thought of them as something deeply Mediterranean that only arrived in Britain with Elizabeth David—like her classic Piedmontese peppers stuffed with anchovies.
Around much longer
Then I stumbled across a few Victorian recipes for stuffed tomatoes and realised that variations of this comforting dish had been around much longer. In 1845, a chef called Joseph Bregion gave a recipe for ‘tomatas farcied’. It involved filling the emptied tomato shells with sausage meat seasoned with tarragon, garlic, parsley, spring onions and ‘rasped bread’. Today, the great Raymond Blanc cooks something very similar, except he uses minced pork instead of sausage meat and adds comte cheese at the end.
Stuffed tomatoes became popular in Britain in the 1830s, and then as now, they were considered rather French. In 1837, a Scottish writer called Margaret Dods observed that “tomatas or love-apples” had started to come into vogue in Britain just as they were becoming less fashionable in France. Mostly, these were made into sauces or pickles or catsup, or eaten raw in a salad, but the next most popular way seems to have been to stuff them with some kind of rich breadcrumb mixture and bake them.
In 1845, Eliza Acton gives a lovely “French receipt” for ‘forced tomatas’, which she serves as a side dish with rump or sirloin. She tells us to divide them up leaving the “blossom-end” largest and to “empty them carefully of their seeds and juice”. Acton’s stuffing involves ham, mushrooms, shallots and parsley—all ‘stewed tender’ in a generous lump of butter and mixed with breadcrumbs, packed into the tomatoes and baked. The French would add garlic too, but Acton doesn’t recommend it— too strong! But she ends on a more forgiving note, observing that “an intelligent cook” will vary the tomato’s stuffing in many ways.
They certainly have. Over the years, there have also been countless variations on tomatoes stuffed with breadcrumbs or rice or some other grain (Greek cook Aglaia Kremezi uses farro with raisins and pine nuts) and baked until the filling and the tomato meld into a buttery whole. In 1919, The Daily Mail Cookbook frugally suggested stuffing tomatoes with a “savoury lentil mixture”; in 1887, The White House Cookbook preferred sweet cream and cabbage.
Over centuries of summers, how many cooks have carefully removed the jellied seeds and replaced them with some piquant mixture or other? We are latecomers to this party. As I sit with my plate of soft but not collapsing stuffed tomatoes, it makes me happy to think of how many people before me, alive and dead, once did the same on August evenings gone by.