Before and after hastily-planned train journeys when Interrailing in 2011, I often found myself in McDonalds; a familiar place, providing reliable food options and free WiFi. Veggie burgers generally weren’t available outside of the UK or Germany, so my options were limited to - the vegetarian classic - salad and chips. However, this wasn’t the wilted lettuce, cucumber and tomato salad you’d expect: it was a caprese salad. Barely a semblance of the caprese eaten in sunny Italian towns, but delicious in its own weird way. Juicy cherry tomatoes and chewy balls of mozzarella, crispy lettuce and weird sliced carrot, saltiness from the occasional sun-dried tomato or olive and a different dressing in every country. I’m certain that as a vegetarian no one should have to listen to me talking about fast food, and I wouldn't advise anyone to order salad over a burger, but these caprese salads shaped many of my first culinary impressions of a country over that summer (bear with me).
McDonalds can provide a pretty good overview of a country’s food culture, the burgers are a more obvious place to look for this. The McDonald's impression of the Capri originated tomato salad was kept simple, elevated easily with a different twist in each country. Each caprese salad came with a sachet of dressing native to the country’s cuisine: Vienna had blue cheese sauce, Marseilles had vinaigrette, Budapest had dill yoghurt, Milan had beautiful extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Outside of McDonalds, there’s no denying that this dish is far better when it’s not pre-packaged by the world’s second-largest fast food restaurant. The flavour of a freshly sliced caprese is unrivalled. Simplicity is key with this dish; plump red tomatoes, milky mozzarella, fresh basil and acidic extra virgin olive oil and salt. Good quality, fresh tomatoes eaten straight from the sun-soaked hills they were grown have a smell that you don’t notice in the supermarket. Bulgarian friends have tried to describe to me the sweet, tangy smell of their native pink tomatoes, I imagine they smell better than tomatoes in Southern Italian markets.
On the same Interrailing trip in Croatia I ordered the only vegetarian dish on the menu at a seafood restaurant - a tomato salad - which was nothing but tomatoes, olive oil and salt. In this same meal, I was introduced to the most basic but entirely life-changing act of adding salt to olive oil. Salt and olive oil extract the best of many dishes; tomatoes chopped with a grating of parmesan, a handful of rocket, salt and olive oil is a great tiny lunch when packaged in a tupperware to eat in a sunny park. Thinly slicing shallots or red onion and mixing chopped tomatoes with olive oil, salt, feta and lemon juice makes a great side salad to hearty dishes. Always have a chunk of bread handy to mop up the juices produced by the tomatoes (this bread is a scarpetta in Italian - by far my favourite Italian word).
Tomatoes are incredibly versatile, they come in so many varieties (15,000, apparently) and are at the core of many cuisines. I’ve got countless simple recipes for tomatoes, but I think it’s best to leave you with the simplest one (for now): sliced, salted tomatoes, good extra virgin olive oil, torn buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil.