Around three quarters of the tomatoes that we consume in the UK are imported, mostly from Spain, Saudi Arabia and Morocco.
Two years ago, an investigation by The Guardian newspaper revealed that migrant African workers picking Spanish tomatoes for export were being paid less than half the legal minimum wage and were living in atrocious conditions.
The tomato pickers were not only charged “rent” for living in appalling squalor, they were also required to pay for drinking water. According to the report, workers who complained about their working or living conditions often had their pay withheld, and the economic crisis in Spain had led to farmers reducing what were already poverty wages still further, in some cases by as much as a third.
The campaigning organisation Anti-Slavery International suggested the report provided evidence of “the emergence of a new form of slavery” and that it raised “the spectre of de facto state sanctioning of slavery in 21st century Europe”.
The situation is hardly better for tomato industry workers in the other countries exporting to Britain.
The Saudi Arabian tomato growing industry also relies on cheap migrant workers, mostly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Although Saudi Arabia has an official minimum wage it does not apply to foreign workers, and neither do the country’s labour laws. Those migrant workers without residency permits, believed to number well over a million, are also excluded from Saudi Arabia’s health care system. Pay and hours in the industry are unregulated, and as a consequence are very low and very long, respectively.
In Morocco, most of the tomato picking workforce are internal migrants. However, on average the pay for a tomato picker is 30% lower than the Moroccan minimum wage. The pickers are housed in ramshackle temporary settlements and transported daily in overcrowded trucks to work in huge, hot plastic greenhouses harvesting cherry tomatoes, many destined for our supermarkets. These workers have in recent years had a number of disputes with the farmers, not just over pay but also over things that we might take for granted, such as the right to receive a pay slip, the right to join a trade union and the right to be enrolled in Morocco’s very basic social security system.
There is a great deal that is wrong with food production in the UK, but at least our seasonal tomato industry does not involve degradation and exploitation on this inhuman scale. It has also stated publicly that it is working to eliminate pesticide use in tomato growing in Britain.
Like it or not, every food purchasing decision we make is a small political act. When it comes to buying tomatoes there are sound political reasons to buy local and of course, always, to buy organic.
This year on my organic allotment plot, the Circus Garden, I’m growing several varieties of tomatoes. My favourites are Matina, a medium-sized, well-flavoured salad tomato with unusual leaves which often does well in taste trials, and Orange Bourgoin, a small sweet, bright orange variety.
I’m using some of my tasty Matina tomatoes as the basis for the richly flavoured tomato sauce which underpins this week’s recipe, which is a sort of Italian/Spanish fusion dish.
Arancini (the name derives from the Italian word “arancina” or “little orange“) are balls of deep fried risotto, a dish originating from Sicily. In this version I’ve stuffed them with mozzarella and pesto, which oozes out when the hot arancini are cut. The tomato sauce, made from fresh, ripe, flavoursome tomatoes and with smoky undertones, is influenced by one of the classic flavours of Spanish cooking.
Serve as a starter, with one to two arancini per person.
stuffed arancini with smoky tomato sauce
For the smoky tomato sauce
1 kg large fresh, ripe organic tomatoes
30 ml extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp soft brown sugar
1/2 tsp dried basil
4 whole cloves of garlic, unpeeled
3 tsp smoked paprika
For the pesto
Large handful of basil leaves
30 g vegetarian Parmesan cheese
75 ml olive oil
10 g pine nuts
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
For the arancini
1 medium onion, finely chopped
320 g arborio or similar risotto rice
1/2 glass wine
1/2 tsp sea salt
1.2 litres vegetable stock
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 buffalo mozzarella, cut into approximately 1.5 cm cubes
50 g vegetarian Parmesan cheese
6 spring onions, finely chopped
To coat the arancini
4 tbsp cornflour
2 organic free range eggs, lightly whisked
2 handfuls breadcrumbs (I used panko breadcrumbs, which are freeze-dried and don’t absorb cooking oil as much as conventional breadcrumbs)
1. Pre-heat the oven to 170˚C (325˚F, gas mark 3). Halve the tomatoes and place on a baking tray, cut side up. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle evenly with the salt, sugar and dried basil. Add the whole garlic cloves, unpeeled, to the baking tray and place the tray in the oven to roast for 1 hour or until the tomatoes are soft. Remove and set to one side.
2. Whilst the tomatoes are in the oven you can make the risotto, which will then be used to form the arancini. Heat the 2 tbsp olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until it softens and starts to go translucent. Add the rice and stir thoroughly, to coat each grain with the oil. Add the wine to deglaze and stir again. Add the salt and a ladle of stock. Keep stirring, adding a ladleful of stock whenever the rice starts to look dry, until the rice is cooked. This will take about 25 minutes. Set the risotto to one side and leave to cool. When it has cooled add the egg, the Parmesan and the finely chopped spring onions. Mix thoroughly and put in the fridge to chill for at least 30 minutes.
3. Make a thick pesto by blitzing the basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan and olive oil together in a blender until reasonably smooth.
4. To make the smoky tomato sauce, heat 2 tbsp olive oil on a medium heat. Add the chopped onion and then reduce the heat to a low setting. Cook the onion, stirring occasionally, for around 20 minutes, making sure it doesn’t catch or burn. By this time it should be very soft and sweet. Squeeze the roasted garlic cloves from their skins into the pan and stir. Add the tomatoes and the smoked paprika and combine thoroughly. Stir with a wooden spoon, squeezing the tomatoes with the spoon to extract their juice. Simmer on a low heat for a further 20 minutes. Check the seasoning and add more salt and pepper if required. Set aside to cool slightly.
5. Put the tomato sauce in a blender and blend until smooth, then push the blended sauce through a sieve to produce a silky smooth sauce. Put the sauce to one side while you assemble the arancini.
6. To make the arancini, first make sure you have bowl of water handy as you will find it is easier to make them with wet hands. Take a handful of the risotto about the size of a golf ball in one hand. Using the index finger of your other hand carefully make a hollow through to the centre of the ball. Then very carefully place a teaspoon of the pesto sauce into the hollow, followed by a cube of the mozzarella. Gently seal the arancini around the filling. Place the completed arancini on a baking tray and when you have completed all of the arancini place the tray in the fridge.
8. To coat the arancini prior to deep frying, set out three bowls, one containing the cornflour, one containing the whisked egg and the third containing the panko breadcrumbs. Carefully roll each arancini in the cornflour, then in the beaten egg and finally in the breadcrumbs, making sure they are completely coated in the breadcrumbs.
9. Put the smoky tomato sauce in a pan and heat over a very low heat, stirring from time to time and checking that it doesn’t boil.
10.In a large, suitable pan heat the groundnut oil over a high heat until it reaches a temperature where a cube of bread browns within 30 seconds of being put into the oil. Using a large slotted spoon carefully lower the arancini into the pan. You will need to do this in two batches. Cook the arancini for 2-3 minutes, turning if necessary, until they are a lovely golden brown all over. Remove from the pan using the slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Quickly cook the second batch of arancini.
10. To assemble, drizzle 3-4 tablespoons of the smoky tomato sauce over each plate and rest the hot arancini on top.