One of my favourite things about living in Italy was the unbelievable freshness of the produce, be it from the daily market in Piazza delle Cure near my house, or from the Esselunga supermarket. Everything tasted as though just harvested, although some of the shapes and colours were a little insane, because they don’t have the same rules as we do in the UK about standard vegetable shape (technically they are EU rules, so they should, but Italy are pretty good at flouting the regulations!). I loved not knowing whether my red pepper would be the same size as a tomato or as a butternut squash! And I loved that the celery didn’t come pre-trimmed, all the leaves were intact. My celery soup here in the UK just does not taste as good as when it contained all those juicy, tangy little leaves.
The very best though, was the tomato. Still now I miss the incredible flavour of an Italian tomato. Even the ‘vine-ripened Italian’ tomatoes you can buy in posh supermarkets for silly amounts of money taste insipid in comparison. When the tomatoes were good, I used to buy them by the bag load, and eat them the same!
The very best thing to do with fresh tomatoes is to make bruschetta (correctly pronounced ‘broo-sketta’), but I will save that recipe for the day when I find some English tomatoes up to the job! Tuscan bruschetta is the best in my opinion – simply tomatoes in olive oil, with salt and pepper, topping bread rubbed with fresh garlic cloves. Basil has no place in it, nor does any form of cheese. It is simply too delicious already to need any further complication.
But I digress! Today’s recipe is one that can be made with less than perfect tomatoes, and still makes them taste wonderful. It makes a great quick lunch or supper, but it is also a decadent-feeling weekend breakfast. I used to make a big pan of it on Sundays and sit over a fresh cafetiere of Italian coffee on the terrace in my lovely Florentine home, just relaxing and enjoying the tastes in the sunshine.
I remember the first time I ate this. It was a perfect autumnal day in Tuscany and I was hiking with a friend in the hills around Florence. We were at the start of a 23km walk, which would take us all day, and had not managed to get breakfast because we’d had to rush for a train to the start of the walk. We had packed sandwiches for our lunch, but were hesitant to eat them too early. In the little village where the train deposited us we hoped to find a snack bar or cafe, but it was so small there was nothing to be seen, so on we walked, rather unimpressed. About forty minutes into the hike, we passed through a small hamlet of houses, only three or four, and smelled the most wonderful aroma of tomatoes and freshly grilled cheese. We couldn’t help but peep into the nearest house to see what had got our stomachs growling, and were surprised to be met with a wizened old face at the window, curiously peering out at us.
Hikers are not really common in Tuscany. You get a few cyclists, and the odd group of enthusiasts, but by and large, the many stunning trails were ours alone to explore. So hikers, especially foreign ones (my companion was German) are an oddity, and rather exciting to the locals. We often encountered the famous Italian hospitality in the countryside which was so noticeably absent in Florence, overrun as it is by tourists. The old lady threw open the window and asked if we were lost. We said no, we didn’t think so, and we were walking to the next town. She gasped, “Ma e piu di tre chilometri*! You’ll get hungry walking all that way”. Since we were already hungry we didn’t deny it, and she invited us in to share her breakfast. It was perfect. The tanginess of the parmesan cheese melted on top of the sweet, smoky tomatoes, with the lovely creaminess of the egg … love at first bite.
This recipe is a faithful re-creation of that dish (I asked for it before we went on our way!) in the typical Tuscan style. Over time I confess to have adapted it occasionally, my favourite way to do so is to add chorizo, which adds the lovely intensity of paprika in little flavourful chunks. I often add big handfuls of spinach too. Today I added some chopped smoked ham, because I was making lunch for my boyfriend and I, and he considers it not to be a meal unless there is meat in it! You can add whatever you want to the basic tomato and egg recipe, although an Italian wouldn’t be so keen on the idea of doctoring perfection. You can also equally cheat and use a tin of chopped tomatoes if you’re in a hurry, as the only thing about this recipe which takes effort is dicing the tomatoes.
Tuscan Baked Eggs
- large punnet of good tomatoes, chopped (or two 400g cans of chopped tomatoes)
- one small red onion, finely diced
- one garlic clove, finely diced
- three or four eggs
- grated parmesan cheese
In a large frying pan, gently fry the onion and garlic on a medium heat, add a sprinkle of salt to bring out the flavour. When starting to go translucent, add in the tomatoes, and simmer for a few minutes. When they have started to break down slightly make three or four ‘holes’ in the tomato, and crack an egg into each. Keep cooking on the hob on a low heat until the whites are cooked through (covering the pan at this point helps speed things up). Then sprinkle the top with parmesan and freshly ground black pepper, and put under a hot grill for a couple of minutes, until the cheese starts to brown.
For presentation’s sake, you can also transfer the tomato to individual ramekins, crack the egg in, and then spoon in a little more tomato around the sides, and proceed as above. Sprinkle the top with chopped chives, and you’ll have a stunning breakfast to impress any visitors. For lunch however, I just do it all in one pan!
Enjoy, and let me know how you like to make your baked eggs!
*But it’s more than three kilometres away!