It’s always a moment of excitement for me when I find that my weekly veg box includes fragrant, organically grown, plump and bright cherry tomatoes. It wasn’t always like this.
When I was a teen growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, tomatoes were insipid things; large, pale, watery, tasteless and usually found stuck to the white cardboard-like bread of limp cheese sandwiches.
While today’s supermarket shelves overflow with every kind of tomato — from heritage to cherry to plum to premium — I remember all too well when tomatoes were uniform in size and colour, and came in plastic bags that were promptly shoved towards the back of the fridge. Needless to say, I avoided them as best as I could.
Then came a family holiday to Greece. As a slightly grumpy teen more interested in furtive drinking and smoking, I went reluctantly. But once I arrived at small, dusty beach resort in Crete, I quickly surrendered to the sensual pleasures of swimming, sunbathing and eating.
It was at the local taverna, overlooking the sandy crescent-shaped beach, that I ate my first traditional Greek salad. I was amazed to find it contained crunchy tomatoes that were both sweet and sour. Combined with salty bitter feta, plump black olives, tangy red onions and pungent olive oil, the result was a sun-drenched revelation. I had no idea veg could be combined in such a sublime way. And it opened a door to a whole new world of taste sensations.
That Greek salad, eaten when I was a sunburnt teen, sparked a lifelong love affair with Greek cuisine, and now when people criticise it for being limited, as they often do, I defend it to the hilt. I could eat salad, grilled fish, taramasalata, hummus, stuffed vine leaves and the myriad other meze options on offer every single day.
Since that moment I’ve actively sought out creative ways to devour flavourful Mediterranean veg. On one trip to Tuscany I stayed at La Foce, a stunning historic estate with a palazzo, cypress trees in a world-famous garden and a languid F Scott Fitzgerald-style of glamour. The family invited us to a meal made up of produce from their vegetable garden. A shady table was covered with a colourful antipasti of salads containing beans, bread, olives, radicchio, tomatoes, aubergine, cheese and meat. The family explained that this was how they ate, throwing together what was in season and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. I felt like I’d stepped into a scene from The Talented Mr Ripley but it wasn’t just the beauty of the setting — it was the chance to eat such simple but delicious fare. It really did feel like feeding the soul.
Now science has backed up what we all instinctively know — that seasonal plant-based eating is good for the body and mind, and that processed food is slowly killing us. Nowadays my salad consumption takes place in a slightly more pedestrian setting — my kitchen in London. I usually make lunch from what’s already in the fridge, or walk to my local Turkish fruit and veg stall to stock up on whatever takes my fancy. I throw it all together haphazardly, add some cheese, meat or lentils and beans, a good olive oil and vinegar, and enjoy a tasty, nourishing dish. I don’t have the heady delights of the Med to gaze out on, but when I eat my daily salad, it still performs a bit of a magic trick; conjuring up heat, happy days and sunshine, as well as a more innocent time.