They had me at the triple-concentration tomato paste.
That’s not to say that Santorini’s Tomato Industrial Museum, set inside the stone shell of one of the Greek island’s former tomato-processing plants, didn’t have other charms. But the flavors we had just sampled at lunch made a visit to a museum all the more meaningful, especially when we could buy a jarred version of those flavors in the museum gift shop.
Santorini’s famous cherry tomato (also called Tomataki Santorini) is thicker-skinned, sweeter, deeper red and larger than garden-variety cherry tomatoes, looking a little like a flattened heirloom tomato. It’s said that its taste comes from the unusual growing conditions. Never irrigated, the plants draw their moisture from their roots in the island’s volcanic soil, which harbors just enough moisture to make the intensely flavored tomatoes thrive.
As the story goes, a Capuchin monk brought the tomatoes to the island in 1818, and tomato farming took off. By the 20th century, islanders had developed the processing plants for one of the island’s signature products, tomato paste. “It was the right place and the right tomato,” says tour guide Polina Gioltzoglou.
In the heyday of production in the 1950s, nine factories ran on Santorini, all constructed with the island’s plasterlike soil and deep-gray volcanic rock. The Nomikos family, which still owns the property, built their factory in the town of Vlychada on the southern end of Santorini following the style of the curved dome roofs that appear all over the island.
Today the Tomato Industrial Museum highlights that past, inside one of the factories that farmers once reached with mules laden with wicker baskets full of tomatoes.
Petros Nomikos, grandson of Dimitrios Nomikos, company founder, says by phone from Athens that he remembers the factory production during his childhood. The Vlychada factory was opened in 1945 by his father, George.
In July, when tomato processing went full tilt around the clock, the factory was “full of a nice tomato-ish smell,” he says. The workers were all friendly, and not just because he was one of the Nomikos family members. “It was something like a social place for them,” he says. “Like the church on Sunday, which was a good excuse to meet other people, also being in the factory was a social event as well.”
But it wasn’t an easy life. The factory operated without electricity, which didn’t reach the population centers of the island until 1967, and relied on coal-burning furnaces for power. In addition, water on Santorini is so scarce that the factory piped in seawater to wash the tomatoes and cool the steam that rose from them as they cooked. All of the tomato paste factories were situated along the coastline so that they could pipe in seawater, says Nomikos.
Gioltzoglou says that farmers would turn in their baskets of tomatoes and wait. Good tomatoes stayed; bad ones were returned to them to feed their farm animals. The seeds would also go to the farmers so they could plant for the next year, says Nomikos.
Nomikos, 53, says he has a vivid memory of visiting the factory as a university student and coming face to face with barefoot farmers who were bringing the tomatoes in on mules. “It was like going into a time warp,” he says.
Inside the museum, quiet since the factory’s last run in 1981, heavy machines dating from 1890 illustrate the process, which began with washing, then cooking, peeling, boiling down and finally canning. At its peak, the factory processed 3,500 baskets of tomatoes a day, first firing the machines with coal and later with fuel oil. After Easter, the same workers returned to the factory to make the cans that held the paste.
Nomikos remembers precisely when electricity finally reached the factory — long after the factory shut down. It was July 7, 1995, the day before his wedding. The reception was held in the building. “The family history was there,” he says.
The tomato canning industry on Santorini declined as tourism became the more lucrative venture for most Santorinians. The Nomikos family now runs factories in other parts of Greece as well as in Turkey and Bulgaria.
Today, tourism is the only meaningful economy on the island, with hotels and restaurants springing up everywhere, nearly all, of course, featuring the Santorini tomato in various forms. Earlier that day, we sat down for a sun-blessed lunch at a restaurant named To Psaraki, situated along a cliff overlooking the nearby harbor of Vlychada.
The meal turned into an homage of sorts to Santorini tomatoes and tomato paste. Starting with an appetizer dish of tomato paste mixed with fresh oregano and spread on warm bread, we looked at sailboats gliding out of the harbor and sipped Mythos beer. Next we sampled bluefin tuna carpaccio and a grilled and baked eggplant dish made with feta, oregano, more tomato paste and olive oil. Our main courses were a grilled grouper and tuna souvlaki, garnished with slices — of course — of Santorini tomatoes.
It was one of our most memorable lunches on Santorini, possibly enhanced by our understanding that the rocky island sits on an active volcano. The caldera, a deep pit of water that the land mass circles like a curved finger, was actually created by a volcano. The last huge eruption, 3,600 years ago, was a devastating blow to the humans who lived here. Like the inhabitants of Pompeii, prehistoric Santorinians were buried under dozens of feet of pumice stone and ash, covering the city of Akrotiri, which is still being excavated today.
Geologists say that it’s just a matter of time before the big one hits again. In other words, this legacy someday could be buried under a layer of ash for future generations to find. But until then, it was a good day to appreciate the tomato.
And that triple-concentration tomato paste? It made an amazing base for tomato fritters that I served at a Greek-themed dinner party a few weeks later.
Bruno, a freelance writer in the District, recently returned from a three-year posting in Beijing.
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The hotel is on the center of the island, about a kilometer from the coast and a
45-minute walk from the northern town of Oia. Rooms off season are about $87.
Finikia 1, Finikia, Oia
The apartment complex offers to carry up your luggage by donkey while you climb up footpaths to reach a room with a view. Rooms off season are less than $100; during the high season (late June to early September), rooms cost about $117 a night.
Vlychada Marina, Vlychada
Near the museum in Vlychada is To Psaraki (“The Little Fish”), considered one of the top restaurants on the island. Specializing in seafood caught fresh each day, the place is known for its grilled sardines and octopus, fish carpaccio, and smoked eggplant salad. A dinner for two with wine costs around $87.
Ochre Wine Bistro
A 10-minute walk from the bus station, next to the windmill
A restaurant known for its sunset views as much as for the food. The moussaka is especially memorable. A set-price dinner menu is around $30, and good local wine is $7 a glass.
Tomato Industrial Museum
Open daily except Mondays 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission for age 12 and older is around $3.
Santorini Arts Factory
A seasonal site for art shows, theater productions and educational workshops adjoining the Tomato Industrial Museum. Exhibitions and workshops vary throughout the year.
Akrotiri Archaeological Site
This Bronze-age Akrotiri excavation site was recently reopened to the public. Many of the stunning frescoes and artifacts have ended up in Athens’s archaeological museum. Admission is about $5. Winter hours are 8 a.m.-3 p.m., and the site is closed on Mondays; after April 1, hours are 8 a.m.-8 p.m.