Tomatoes are part of our lives today, everyone must have at least seen one and chances are you’ve eaten thousands of them. In these days of globalisation and food from all around the world on the shelves of our supermarkets, they are an everyday item. It wasn’t always this way, however. Read on to find out how the tomato has become ubiquitous in kitchens around the world.
History of the tomato
The tomato is believed to be native to Central America with some estimates dating the plant to 700 CE, but I would reckon it has existed longer than that in some form. When Europeans started invading the Americas for colonial purposes in the 16th Century the explorers discovered the plant and it made its way across the Atlantic to Europe.
It is believed that Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes may have been the first Spaniard to take the Tomato back to Europe after he captured eth city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in 1521, though it is suspected Christopher Columbus could well have taken the plant back after his voyage in 1493. These tomatoes would have been small and yellow. The first mention of tomatoes in European writing is by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physicist and botanist who described the plant as an eggplant that was blood red or golden in colour when mature and could be divided into segments to be eaten. It was suggested that it be cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper and olive oil. It was Mattioli that named them ‘golden apples’ or pomi d’oro – the name which they are known by today.
After the Spanish colonisation of the Americas, the tomato was distributed throughout the Caribbean. It was also taken to the Philippines, where it spread into southeast Asia and the entire Asian continent.
In Europe. Tomatoes were initially admired for their beauty and were thought to be poisonous initially. This myth was perpetuated in England by author George Gerard who despite knowing the tomato was eaten in Spain and Italy declared it poisonous. There is a theory that due to only the richest in England being able to afford tomatoes that the myth of them being poisonous came from the tableware used by rich in northern Europe. Pewter plates were used in northern Europe as opposed to the pottery used further south in the Mediterranean. The high lead content of pewter meant that when it came into contact with acidic foods, like tomatoes, the lead would leak out into the food and cause whoever was eating it to get lead poisoning. Poor people, who ate off of wood did not have this problem.
It didn’t take long for the tomato to become popular though. With their suitability to European climates and blossoming into new varieties, the plant started to gain fans and by 1692 the first recipe is recorded using tomatoes in an Italian cookbook from Naples. These recipes are believed to have come from Spain though.
In Italy experimentation with species over the next few hundred years resulted in many new varieties with different types of tomatoes grown for different purposes. Today there are ten thousand varieties of tomatoes. The main types are:
Beefsteak Tomatoes – These are a large variety that is used for sandwiches and similar purposes. They are thin skinned and don’t have a long shelf life
Plum tomatoes – these are specifically bred for a lower water content and higher solids content. These are particularly good for using in tomato sauces and paste and are the most commonly tinned type of tomatoes.
Cherry tomatoes – This type is a sweet and juicy type of tomato. They are the size of wild tomatoes and are used in salads
Grape tomatoes – These are a more oblong, smaller variation of the plum tomato
Campari tomatoes – This type of tomato is sold as ‘tomato on the vine’ and are one of the most popular types of fresh tomatoes
Tomberries – There are tiny tomatoes, around 5mm diameter
Oxheart tomatoes – These are similar in size top beefsteak tomatoes, but are shaped more like strawberries
Pear tomatoes – Pear tomatoes are a variety of plum tomatoes that produce rich fruit perfect for sauces. These are derived from the San Marzano variety
Slicing or globe tomatoes – These are the most popular type of tomato seen in supermarkets and are marketed as salad tomatoes. They are the most widely grown commercial tomatoes and can reach 5-6cm in diameter