In a 1988 article in The Age, food writer Terry Durack listed his essentials for a civilised weekend out of reach of a gourmet food store. They were: olive oil and balsamic vinegar, walnut oil, sun-dried tomatoes, chèvre, King Island crème fraiche, Parmigiano, limes, basil, lemongrass, chillis, ginger, garlic, anchovies and Maldon Sea Salt. But by the mid-noughties, sun-dried tomatoes were well and truly yesterday’s heroes.
In the Independent in 1995, Michael Bateman wrote:
NOW here’s a funny thing. Sun-dried tomatoes come from Italy, but until this year we have been eating more here than they do in Italy. It was Britain, not Italy, which raised world consciousness of this gastronomic little nonsense.
We’ve been downing a phenomenal million and half jars a year, a figure that only this year do the Italians expect to match. How should this be? Anna del Conte, the leading Italian cookery writer in Britain, is not surprised. “Until a year or two ago people in north Italy had never heard of sun-dried tomatoes, let alone eaten them. It was a home-made speciality enjoyed solely in the south.”
According to Bateman, the sun-dried tomato arrived in Britain via California. Perhaps the same is true for Australia. The very first sun-dried tomatoes were American after all – they were prepared by the Aztecs in around 700 BC. Then, via the Spanish conquistadors, tomatoes made their way to Europe where they eventually became a staple of southern Italian cuisine.
The sun-drying process was originally a matter of necessity – a way to preserve the crop for the winter. The tomatoes had to be salted to stop them from rotting as they slowly dried on the rooftops. Today’s commercial product is mostly dried in ovens or specialised dehydrators.
You tend to see more semi-dried tomatoes these days, usually preserved in oil. They’re not as salty, and they need to be kept in the fridge where they should last for up to six months.
However, all forms of sun-dried tomatoes are now very uncool. When they ceased to be a secret of the foodie elite and became a common or garden product at Coles, they simply lost their glamour. And it seems we didn’t love them enough to ignore the snob factor.