Where tomatoes really come from

The origins of the tomato are not as Mediterranean as you might think

T is for… Tomatoes. Here’s an interesting fact for you: tomatoes don’t come from Italy. They don’t even come from Spain, or Portugal, or Greece. No. Tomatoes are Central American. There were tomatoes in the USA before it even was the USA. And so, maddeningly, they have every right to call them ‘tom-ay-toes’.

It is odd that the tomato, which we think of as so quintessentially Mediterranean, should come from a totally different part of the world. In Mexico, tomatoes have been cultivated since at least 500BC. They were a prized food, associated with the powers of divination and spirit-channelling.

Tomatoes didn’t reach Europe until around 1500, brought back either by Christopher Columbus or the conquistador Hernán Cortés. They reached Spain first, where they were treated as a red aubergine – ie. cooked with salt, pepper and oil, as they are to this day. Gradually they found their way to Italy, and are mentioned by the house steward of Cosimo de’ Medici in a letter of 31st October 1548.

However it took many decades for the Italians to pluck up the courage to eat them. Because they grow close to the ground, they were considered lowly, and less filling than other fruits. And several bitter and poisonous varieties were also off-putting. It wasn’t until the 1690s that a tomato found its way into an Italian recipe; what we think of as a time-immemorial classic of cuisine is actually only a few centuries old. They were pretty, though, and often used as table decorations or grown in ornamental flower beds.

The English were even more cowardly when it came to eating tomatoes. Although they were introduced as a decorative plant in the 1590s, tomatoes didn’t pass British lips until around the 1750s. They were widely believed to be poisonous, thanks largely to a barber-physician (never trust a man who claims to be an expert in more than one thing) called John Gerard. He wrote a Herbal in 1597 dissing the plant, which took 150 years to recover. By 1800, though, the tomato was in almost daily use in England in soups, stews and sauces. The Middle East was last of all to the party, not eating tomatoes until well into the nineteenth century.

As well as their decorative use, tomatoes were used as a weapon. Rotten tomatoes were traditionally thrown at people in the stocks; to this day, the town of Buñol in Spain has a mass tomato fight every year. La Tomatina attracted over 40,000 people in 2007 but an entry fee and health and safety measures have since been introduced. Nevertheless, 145,000kg of tomatoes were chucked in 2015. The town is sparklingly clean once the squished tomatoes have been hosed away as the acidity cleans cobbles and marbles like nothing else.

Although there are more than 7,500 varieties of tomatoes grown, most of them taste watery and flavourless. To have a proper tomato, ripe and warm from the sun, in Italy or in France, is a totally different experience from your average supermarket fruit. Although we eat them and rely on them weekly, it is all too easy to take the tomato for granted. For a relatively new food, it is already utterly commonplace. But it’s worth seeking out the good stuff when you’re abroad, for the pure sweetness and figgy fragrance of its taste. As Pablo Neruda wrote, the tomato has ‘remarkable amplitude / and abundance, / no pit, / no husk, / no leaves or thorns, / the tomato offers / its gift / of fiery colour / and cool completeness.’


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