Rudi-Lee McCarthy approached his idea for a tomato and hake-based dish with a desire to reimagine Irish cuisine.
An artist, chef and filmmaker, he didn’t look to draw inspiration from anyplace conventional.
Rather, he says, he prepared the recipe with painter Jack B. Yeats in mind.
He wanted to capture the essence of Yeats’ 1930 oil-on-panel painting, Power Station, a depiction of the Pigeon House in Poolbeg, prior to the erection of its second chimney.
“This was to take my experience in landscape painting and bring that to a new medium,” McCarthy says.
He soaked the tomatoes in lemon juice, similar to how in Mexican cooking raw onions are often marinated in citrus flavours.
This action was, he says, his eureka moment.
He had at the time, been in the middle of his studies at the National College of Art and Design, and he says, in the end the prospect of reimagining Irish cookery felt too lofty a task for research.
“There wasn’t enough of a support structure for that,” he says.
But the lemon-soaked tomato gave him a certain clarity and he pinned his focus on the crop, its correlation to Mexican cuisine and its broader history.
Now, what he wanted to grasp was how exactly the tomato came to be one of the most widely consumed fruits globally, and what cost did this come at?
“Tomatoes are probably the most exotic fruit we have on a daily basis,” he says.
Seated outside Fegan’s 1924 café near Smithfield and the now-closed Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market, McCarthy places on a table, a slim, pale green booklet.
The cover features an illustration of a halved tomato. Its title reads Porta Aperta.
Released as a limited run of 50 copies, Porta Aperta, he says, is a 36-page book that delves into the history of the tomato, through a narrative of flavours.
Its name is Italian for “open door”. McCarthy frames it as a revealing of the truth.
The booklet is split into two parts: The Conquistadors Cookbook and The Contemporary Slaves Cookbook.
Both pair research with a series of tomato-based dishes that McCarthy has selected to represent a particular moment in history.
Dispelling assumptions that the tomato was an eternal staple of Italian cuisine, McCarthy begins in northern Peru and southern Ecuador, its actual places of origin.
He traces its global spread to 1528, the year the conquistadors returned from the Americas to Spain, bringing with them tomato seeds.
When, precisely, the tomato first arrived in Ireland is unclear, he says. It was first grown commercially in the Republic during the early 1930s.
After the Second World War, by which stage, the industry had expanded significantly, the Netherlands became one of the island’s chief suppliers.
The Netherlands remained the primary hub through which tomatoes were imported into Ireland, with the crop being produced there, alongside such countries as Spain and Morocco.
By 2020, a total of 25,000 tonnes of tomatoes were imported into Ireland each year, according to the Central Statistics Office.
Porta Aperta’s main purpose isn’t to provide lively recipes, says McCarthy, but to inform consumers as to how a certain dish or ingredient arrived on their plate or in their kitchen.
McCarthy only fell into cookery by chance, he says.
He first entered a kitchen in October 2018, working as a member of staff in The Green Tree restaurant in Westmeath. Later, in December 2021, he became a chef in The Bective Restaurant in Meath.
The job taught him contemporary French cuisine, but, he says, until that point he had never intended to be a chef.
“People ask me if I would be interested in opening my own kitchen,” McCarthy says. “But I have to always remind people, even though cooking is my medium, I am an artist.”
His idea for Porta Aperta emerged while he was studying Sculpture and Expanded Practice at the National College of Art and Design.
For a time, he had considered developing a documentary on tattoo artistry for the module. But he dropped this plan, saying it didn’t have as strong an emotional impact on him.
Instead, he opted to create a cookery show in collaboration with the photographer and videographer Ian Kelly.
Titled As Much As You Like, a pilot episode for the potential series was released in June. McCarthy’s intention was to educate viewers about the history of art by way of cookery, he says
Kelly says he was attracted to the project because it was a cookery show with a twist. “By incorporating how the actual food itself was relevant to the artist we were covering too.”
The focus of the pilot was the Yeats-inspired hake dish. While writing the script in late 2021, McCarthy began his descent into the violent history of the tomato.
The first documentation of the tomato in Europe was written by the Italian botanist, Pietro Andrea Mattioli in 1544.
In Italy, the south was an early adopter of the crop, McCarthy says, linking its spread to the reorganisation of the Kingdom of Naples by Pedro de Toledo, the first Spanish Viceroy of Naples.
With the convergence of Italian and Spanish culture in Naples, the kingdom’s food culture became, McCarthy writes “not quite Spanish, not quite Italian [and] not quite Aztec”.
McCarthy learned about the make-up of Naples’ food heritage while on a week-long intensive cookery course in the city back in March.
He studied classes specific to pasta, ravioli, buffalo mozzarella, and pizza.
It was while learning under the chef who specialised in pizza, McCarthy says, that he became keenly aware of this period in the tomato’s expansion.
“I was dead quiet, anxious to learn as he told me about its history in Napoli, about gastronomy and the production of the San Marzano tomato,” McCarthy says.
“When I arrived home, I had this mountain of research.”
McCarthy’s Italian recipes drew from readings of 16th and 17th Century botany books, and The Modern Steward, a cookery book published between 1692 and 1694, by Antonio Latini, the first minister to the Spanish Viceroy of Naples.
The pizza chef, he says, was also able to provide a trove of insight into the present-day production of the crop.
McCarthy says his awareness of the tomato’s connection to the modern-day slave trade grew. “It became this political project.”
The Contemporary Slaves Cookbook forms the latter half of Porta Aperta, and it frames present-day consumption in the context of the refugee crisis.
The fundamental questions it poses are: who grows our vegetables today? And why can they be purchased so cheaply in major supermarkets?
“My answer in fact is the shadow of colonialism haunts our fruit and veg aisles and the exploitation of the non-white and European humans is still very real,” writes McCarthy.
He focuses on the green houses of Almeria in Spain, which cover 76,600 acres of land and produce 3.5 million tonnes of fruit and vegetables per year.
Sixty-one percent of Almeria’s produce is exported, according to regional distribution company Agrosol, with 99.8 percent of this going to European markets, primarily the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom.
McCarthy observes in his book that often, Almeria’s labourers are overworked and grossly underpaid migrants from north and west Africa.
Representing the plights of both refugees and exploited migrants, he includes such recipes as jollof rice from Ghana, zaalouk, an eggplant dish from Morocco, couscous de Timbuktu from Mali, and kedjenou, a chicken-based dish from the Ivory Coast.
In support of this, for his NCAD graduation show, McCarthy also produced a large-scale painting to represent themes of Porta Aperta, titled “European Dream, and the exploitation of those in search of better days.”
A surrealist depiction of two migrants, one with the head of a tomato, the piece also features the Tesco logo, referring to the fact that the chain sources some of its fruit and vegetables from Almeria.
Food, says McCarthy, is an educational vessel. “It [Porto Aperta] is not to make people feel guilty about what they eat, but to make them aware of it.”
His immediate prescription is for people to purchase their food from local farmers markets and independent multicultural shops.
He gestures to the area around Smithfield, both with the former Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market and the spate of traders in its vicinity.
Part of his research involved studying the impact of food conglomerates on such independent sellers, he says.
He approached them with inquiries, some of which were rebuffed, he says. Others became friendly, while refusing his requests to give them a hand.
“They kinda accepted me like, ‘You’re a bit crazy for asking these questions,’” he laughs.
“Maybe we’ll probably never get out of the chain of the exploitation of workers,” he says, “but at least by going down to independent wholesalers, like here, supporting them, we’ll be benefitting something.”