I’m currently enjoying my own cherry tomatoes grown in the back of my apartment. As I contemplated this simple pleasure, a memory came to me. I think it was almost 20 years ago when I was introduced to the works of Marguerite Yourcenar, a terrific Belgium-born French writer. I read two of her books that are still on my mind. The first was “Opus Nigrum,” with its great character of a doctor/alchemist. As I recall, he is a bit of Leonardo Da Vinci and a bit of the physician/botanist Paracelsus, living in the difficult Middle Ages where knowing beyond the official, accepted beliefs could be dangerous. When fate led me to the olive oil world, more than once I thought of Zenon, the melancholic hero of the novel, who, if he knew about olive oil, might have held it in his highest esteem (and perhaps would have made a good deal of fantastic remedies with it).
In Yourcenar’s second book, “Memoirs of Hadrian” — a novel that takes the form of a letter from a Roman emperor to the young, emperor-to-be, Marcus Aurelius — there’s a passage in which Hadrian laments the too elaborated imperial foods of his palace in Rome and longs to go to Greece to eat grilled fresh fish by the sea. That frugal spirit manifested in that line has stayed with me since.
As much as I consider myself lucky to have had access to the work of great chefs, or even more, to the high sophistication of innovative techniques as molecular cuisine, I see myself going back to simple things such as tomatoes. Actually, I should say — full disclosure of my agenda here — tomatoes and olive oil. I would not have enjoyed tomatoes as much as I do without its best partner. A couple of years ago we wrote about this happy duo, “Tomatoes and Olive Oil: Best Friends Forever.”
A study made by Science BBC, shows that lycopene, the potent anti-oxidant found in tomatoes helps protect the skin from UV exposure.
What the study does not mention, unfortunately, is the role olive oil plays in making lycopene much more accessible to us when we drizzle olive oil on fresh tomatoes, gazpachos, or tomato sauces. What actually happens is that lycopene, a water-soluble phenol (anti-oxidant), is easily perishable when meeting gastric (more precisely hydrochloric) acid. The latter is abundant in our stomach, and is much needed for digestion. This is where olive oil comes into the picture.
Olive oil provides a fat shield that protects these anti-oxidants, adding its own anti-oxidants to the mix. In this way, the anti-oxidants survive the transit through the stomach, reach the small intestine, and then the blood stream, providing extra protection to cells against free radicals. This may explain partly the so-called French paradox in which a rich diet does not make people sick or obese. Large quantities of food with anti-oxidants (wine, greens, fruits) are eaten along with fatty foods such as butter, paté, rich cheeses and thus benefits from the same kind of fat protection (by the way, another benefit of this diet, as long as its done in moderation, is the pleasure one receives from it, which can only have a healthy impact on us). This applies also to every time you eat your salad or veggies with olive oil. More of the good stuff in them is protected and therefore absorbed.
Going back to tomatoes, as the study mentions, about 85 percent of lycopene in the western diet is obtained from tomatoes, and the best place to find it is in tomato paste.
With this, we wish you a good deal of tomato-olive oil adventures this tomato season, and perhaps, an adventure into the wonderful world of Marguerite Yourcenar as well. Both gifts can make our lives better.
On behalf of the Pacific Sun Olive Oil team,