You say tomato, I say tom-ah-to! This ubiquitoes ingredient in dishes ranging from salads to pizza, is well known to all of us, but were you aware that this plant is in the same family as the deadly nightshade?
Let’s take a a bit of an exploration and check out this interesting plant and some of its history.
First of all, even though in culinary circles it is treated as a vegetable, the tomato is a fruit of the berry variety. There are around 7,500 tomato varieties grown for various purposes having been selected with varying fruit types, and for optimum growth in differing growing conditions.
About 161.8 million tonnes of tomatoes were produced in the world in 2012. China, the largest producer, accounted for about one quarter of the global output, followed by India and the United States. For one variety, plum or processing tomatoes, California accounts for 90% of U.S. production and 35% of world production.
The tomato is native to western South America and Central America. Native versions were small, like cherry tomatoes, and most likely yellow rather than red. A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were erroneously thought to be poisonous by Europeans who were suspicious of their bright, shiny fruit. The leaves are in fact poisonous, although the fruit is not.
Aztecs and other peoples in Mesoamerica used the fruit in their cooking. The exact date of domestication is unknown: by 500 BC, it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico and probably other areas. The Pueblo people are thought to have believed that those who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination. The large, lumpy variety of tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes.
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in 1521, although Christopher Columbus may have taken them back as early as 1493. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in a herbal written in 1544 by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist, who suggested that a new type of eggplant had been brought to Italy that was blood red or golden color when mature and could be divided into segments and eaten like an eggplant—that is, cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper, and oil. It was not until ten years later that tomatoes were named in print by Mattioli as pomi d’oro, or “golden apple”.
After the Spanish colonization of the Americas, the Spanish distributed the tomato throughout their colonies in the Caribbean. They also took it to the Philippines, from where it spread to southeast Asia and then the entire Asian continent. The Spanish also brought the tomato to Europe. It grew easily in Mediterranean climates, and cultivation began in the 1540s. It was probably eaten shortly after it was introduced, and was certainly being used as food by the early 17th century in Spain.
The recorded history of tomatoes in Italy dates back to 31 October 1548 when the house steward of Cosimo de’ Medici, the grand duke of Tuscany, wrote to the Medici private secretary informing him that the basket of tomatoes sent from the grand duke’s Florentine estate at Torre del Gallo “had arrived safely.” Tomatoes were grown mainly as ornamentals early on after their arrival in Italy. For example, the Florentine aristocrat Giovanvettorio Soderini wrote how they “were to be sought only for their beauty” and were grown only in gardens or flower beds. The tomato’s ability to mutate and create new and different varieties helped contribute to its success and spread throughout Italy. However, even in areas where the climate supported growing tomatoes, their proximity of growing to the ground suggested low status. They were not adopted as a staple of the peasant population because they were not as filling as other fruits already available. Additionally, both toxic and inedible varieties discouraged many people from attempting to consume or prepare them. In certain areas of Italy, such as Florence, the fruit was used solely as a tabletop decoration before it was incorporated into the local cuisine in the late 17th or early 18th century. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692, though the author had apparently obtained these recipes from Spanish sources.
Unique varieties were developed over the next several hundred years for uses such as dried tomatoes, sauce tomatoes, pizza tomatoes, and tomatoes for long term storage. These varieties are usually known for their place of origin as much as by a variety name. For example, Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio is the “hanging tomato of Vesuvius”. Five different varieties have traditionally been used to make these “hanging” tomatoes. They are Fiaschella, Lampadina, Patanara, Principe Borghese, and Re Umberto. Other tomatoes that originated in Italy include San Marzano, Borgo Cellano, Christopher Columbus, Costoluto Genovese, and Italian Pear. These tomatoes are characterized by relatively intense flavor compared to varieties typically grown elsewhere.
The tomato is now grown and eaten around the world. It is used in diverse ways, including raw in salads, and processed into ketchup or tomato soup. Unripe green tomatoes can also be breaded and fried, used to make salsa, or pickled. Tomato juice is sold as a drink, and is used in cocktails such as the Bloody Mary.
Tomatoes are acidic, making them especially easy to preserve in home canning whole, in pieces, as tomato sauce or paste. The fruit is also preserved by drying, often in the sun, and sold either in bags or in jars with oil.
Although tomatoes originated in the Americas, they have become extensively used in Mediterranean cuisine. They are a key ingredient in pizza, and are commonly used in pasta sauces. They are also used in gazpacho (Spanish cuisine) and pa amb tomàquet (Catalan cuisine).
Though it is botanically a berry, a subset of fruit, the tomato is a vegetable for culinary purposes, because of its savory flavor (see below).
Tomatoes are now eaten freely throughout the world. They contain the carotene lycopene, one of the most powerful natural antioxidants. In some studies, lycopene, especially in cooked tomatoes, has been found to help prevent prostate cancer, but other research contradicts this claim. Lycopene has also been shown to improve the skin’s ability to protect against harmful UV rays. A study done by researchers at Manchester and Newcastle universities revealed that tomato can protect against sunburn and help keeping the skin looking youthful. Natural genetic variation in tomatoes and their wild relatives has given a genetic plethora of genes that produce lycopene, carotene, anthocyanin, and other antioxidants. Tomato varieties are available with double the normal vitamin C (Doublerich), 40 times normal vitamin A (97L97), high levels of anthocyanin (resulting in blue tomatoes), and two to four times the normal amount of lycopene (numerous available cultivars with the high crimson gene).
This photo was taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mk II using an EF 24-105mm f/4L lens. Studio lights were used so that exposure settings were 1/100 second at f/6.3 at 100 ISO.