Wednesday, 11 March 2015


“It’s difficult to think anything but pleasant thoughts while eating a homegrown tomato.” - Lewis Grizzard

Before Columbus stumbled upon America in the 15th century, European cuisine was lacking many common foods and culinary ingredients that we now take for granted. The influx of fantastic discoveries from the New World, greatly altered the way that Europeans cooked and ate. Today, nearly 30% of the world’s cultivated plants originated in the New World. Some of the foods that came from the New World are: Tomatoes, potatoes, maize, cassava (manioc, tapioca), breadfruit, cocoa (chocolate!), vanilla, pineapples, peanuts, Lima beans, chili peppers (cayenne, paprika), pumpkins, squash, avocadoes, pecans, cashews, and not forgetting of course, the turkey!

When one thinks of Southern European cuisine, it is unimaginable that as late as the 15th century, there were no tomatoes used in it at all! So to honour the New World’s contribution to world cuisine, today’s blog is dedicated to the wonderful tomato.

The tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) has origins traced back to the early Aztecs around 700 A.D. and it is believed that this fruit (so the botanists advise us, or vegetable if you believe the US Supreme Court!) is native to the Americas. Cortez first discovered the tomato in the year 1519, in the gardens of Montezuma in Costa Rica. He took its seeds back to Europe where they were planted as ornamental curiosities, but not eaten. However, in Southern Europe, the tomato was quickly accepted into the kitchen, yet as it moved northwards, more resistance was apparent. The British, for example, admired the tomato for its beauty, but long believed that it was poisonous.

It is thought the first variety to reach Europe was yellow in colour, since in Spain and Italy they were known as pomi d’oro, meaning yellow apples. The French referred to them as pommes d’amour, or love apples, as they thought them to have stimulating aphrodisiac properties (not true). The specific name lycopersicum is from the Greek and means “wolf-peach”, referring perhaps once again to the perceived dual nature of the tomato: Attractive as a peach to the eye, but baneful to health and vitality like a wolf! Italy was the first to embrace and cultivate the tomato with zest outside South America. This love affair of Italian cuisine with the tomato continues to this day.

The reason for this idea of the toxicity of the tomato was that rich people in the Elizabethan era used plates made of pewter, which has a high-lead content. Foods high in acid, like tomatoes, would cause the lead to leach out into the food, resulting in lead poisoning and death. The poor people, who ate off plates made of wood, did not have that problem, and hence ate tomatoes heartily. This is essentially the reason why tomatoes were only eaten by poor people until the 1800s when China plates became widespread and the tomato more acceptable as a dietary item even amongst the aristocracy.

What other changes in the 1800s contributed to increasing the tomato’s popularity? Mass immigration from Europe to America and the traditional blending of cultures was one of the prime reasons. Many Italian-Americans ate tomatoes and brought that food with them. But also, and perhaps equally as important, was the invention of pizza. There is no traditional pizza without tomato sauce, and pizza was invented around Naples in the late 1880s. The pizza was created by a restaurateur in Naples to celebrate the visit of Queen Margherita, the first Italian monarch since Napoleon conquered Italy. The restaurateur made the pizza from three ingredients that represented the colours of the new Italian flag: Red, white, and green. The red was the tomato sauce, the white was the mozzarella cheese, and the green was the basil topping. Hence, Pizza Margherita was born, which is still the standard for pizza.

It was not regarded as a kitchen vegetable until the times preceding The Civil War Period in the United States. From this point on, tomatoes have become a common item in kitchens the world round (with the exception of Far Eastern cuisine, perhaps). Americans apparently consume over 12 million tons of tomatoes each year!

We are currently growing some cherry tomatoes in our own garden and their taste and flavour is absolutely delicious! A simple salad that we make is the following: A couple of handfuls of cherry tomatoes, some fresh tender tips of purslane, some capers, a chopped Spanish onion, cucumber slices (the small Lebanese cucumbers are wonderful), some oregano and optionally, small cubes of cheese (anything that you have in the fridge, cheddar, fresh parmesan, blue vein, brie…). A simple olive oil vinaigrette dressing and some salt is all you need to finish it off.

More tomatorecipes here. And incidentally, on etymological grounds, the correct way to say tomato is to*MAH*to (from French, Spanish, or Portuguese tomate, from Nahuatl tomatl) and not to*MAY*to!

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