I’ve returned to the gardens twice since then, but I’ve made my version of that tomato dish countless times, and each time I’m startled by how beautiful it is. Everything you do to make the dish, which isn’t much, seems to brighten what is basic and beloved about a tomato: its form, flavor, texture and hue.
The dish is simply a tomato, peeled and roasted at a very low temperature for a few hours in a pan with an ample amount of olive oil, enough to baste the tomato regularly. Even before it’s ready, it’s lovely: Each new application of oil is like a fresh coat of glossy polish. When it’s cooked through to tender, it holds its shape, its color too, but it seems almost translucent — you see a tracery of ribs and veins along its contours. But you can’t know the true brilliance of the dish until you taste it: The tomato is vegetal and rich, as you would expect, but it’s also a bit sweet and a touch citrusy. The surprise is at the core. At the start, you peel the tomato, then cut a small, conical wedge out of the top, a hollow to fill with sugar and lime zest. During the hours in the oven, basting with that blend of oil and sugar and zest, the ingredients find their way into every fiber of the tomato, technically making it a kind of confit, a dish cooked in fat (like duck confit) or sugar (like candied cherries).
The original Giverny tomato was listed on the menu as tomate confite. I think it was served warm, and I remember that there was a little salad with it. At home, I like the tomato as much at room temperature as I do warm, and I also like it cold. I like it with great tomatoes, of course, but it’s better than I would have imagined with tomatoes that have either not reached their peak or have passed it. Gentle heat and the mix of oil and sugar smooth over shortcomings.
I’m not sure why it took me this long, but it was the sugar in this recipe that made me finally and fully accept that a tomato is, as I’d been taught, a fruit. And so, although I like the dish’s sweetness (which is not overly pronounced) at the start of a meal, just as I had it in Giverny and as I serve it most often, every once in a while I tip toward the tomato’s fruitiness and serve the dish for dessert, chilled, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, drizzled with olive oil and finished with a pinch of flaky sea salt. I have no idea if the chef who created this dish would approve of my culinary shenanigans; I like to think he would. But the museum guard, I wonder about him. Would he find it trop bonne? Or at least good enough to let us into the garden? I like to think yes.