The Precious Tomato

Pomo D'Oro: Apple of Gold

italian tomatoes

Without a doubt, there are millions of dishes in which the tomato is one of the principle ingredients, or in which it is used as the base for recipes. It could be for its color, flavour, or versatility, and heaven knows the tomato has travelled a long way since the ancient Aztecs, to finally find itself in today's recipes. The tomato accompanied corn, potatoes, hot peppers (pepperoncino) and the sweet potato on its journey to finally be introduced in Spain at the beginning of the 1500's ( during the crossing voyages of Cristoforo Colombo).

Italian pasta with tomato sauce.

The cultivation of the tomato plant had been already diffused in pre-Colombian Mexico and Peru, then introduced to Europe by the Spaniards in the 16th century- though only as an ornamental plant, and not as one to be consumed. It was believed to be absolutely poisonous for its high content of solanina, a substance considered at that time, to be harmful to man. In fact, in 1544, the Italian herbalist Pietro Matthioli, classified the tomato plant along with other poisonous plants; even though he admitted having heard that the fruit was fried in oil, and then eaten in some regions.

The tomato plant was originally from Chile or Ecuador; where the climate is tropical. In these countries the plants joyously produce fruits all year around. Meanwhile, in other regions tomatoes have a limited annual cycle; to the summer-- to be precise, if they are cultivated in the open air.

The tomato comes form the plant family solanacee. Its cousin the eggplant, was in those times, the preferred fruit in the Arabic World. Today, with the exception of Italian (because the tomato is called pomodoro), the word "tomato" is similar in all other languages- seeing that is was derived from the Aztec word for the plant. The original plant that was imported into Europe was called xitomatl, but it actually referred to the "Tomatl." The Tomatl was another plant similar to the tomato, but smaller, and the fruits were a greenish-yellow color and today are called "Tomatillo." These tomatoes are still used in Central American cooking.(The Spanish call both tomate).

green tomatoes

Tomatoes were diffused around the whole of the Mediterranean, as the climate was very supportive to their growth, especially in Italy-in the Nocerino-Sarnese region between Naples and Salerno. The oldest Italian recipe that is known -- having the tomato incorporated-- is the "Salsa di Pomodoro alla Spagnola" literally Spanish Tomato Sauce and likely showed up in 1692.

The People of Naples and the Importance of the Tomato

The tomato breathes throughout the Neapolitan Gastronomy, and is largely diffused in all the world for its taste, and important dietary properties. It has, not so long ago, been added to European cooking regimens, having been already imported in the 1500's; only 200 years after it had been newly used as a food.

For the people of Naples, it is almost impossible to imagine a kitchen deprived of bright red color and fragrant perfume of

Italian pasta and tomato cherry

"pummarola" (or tomato). A traditional dish of old Antique Naples is "la minestra maritata," which does not contain the least trace of tomato, like all the rest of the recipes before the 1600's.

Luciano De Crescenzo celebrated the first appearance of the tomato upon Italian tables. Obviously, the Neapolitan writer having Italian cooking in mind, particularly defined the fruit in this way; "That kitchen illuminated in light for it's its presence on the Italian table - to that wonderful product of nature, made in the form of a bulb."


Matilde Serao, a Neapolitan writer (1856-1927), used creative enthusiasm in her "Leggende Napoletane" Neapolitan Legenda-she describes the wild tomato recipe of her wizard magician Chico-who allegately invented the maccheroni with tomato. In the story of the "Segreto Del Mago," taking place in the Neapolitan period of 1220, she ends the legend by saying;

"In the house of the Cortellari's, inside the little room of the wizard, on a Saturday night, Chico returned to cut his

Italian pasta tomato sauce.

maccheroni, and the angel Jovanella of Canzio was mixing the red hot spicy tomato sauce with her spatula in one hand, and grating cheese with the other. Being demonic or angelic, this was to be discovered of Chico, and he had created a happiness for all Neapolitans, and nothing indicated that it wouldn't continue on for centuries and centuries".

The tomato is laced with mysterious qualities having the powers to excite, and being labelled as an aphrodisiac. For these reasons it was used in potions and magic filters by alchemists in the 1500's and 1600's. It is not very clear how or where in Europe this exotic fruit (coming from such an ornamental plant) began to appear on the tables of some courageous farmers.

In 1640, a nobleman of Tolone gave a gift to Cardinal Richelieu-- four tomato plants. Even in France, men used to offer tomato plants as gifts for their dames-- as an act of love. The tomato plant comes from the "New World" and has been refered to as "the Love Apple," translated into many languages as; "Pomme d'Amour" (in French) "Libesapfel" (in German) and "Pomo d'Oro" or apple of gold (in Italian). Each of these definitions refers the tomato as a fruit pertaining to love.

The first signs of using tomatoes as a consumable fruit was this; used fresh-- then crushed and boiled, as in the making of a tomato sauce. This was seen in various parts of Europe in the 17th century. Though at the end of the 1700's, cultivation was aimed at the alimentation of the fruit, that already had a strong influential grip on Europe-- principally in France and southern Italy. In 1762, techniques for conservation of the tomato were being studied by Lazzaro Spallanzani. The fruits were boiled and then placed into closed containers-in this fashion they weren't altered in any way. In France, they were usually consumed by the courts of the king, but in Italy they were consumed among the whole population. In 1809, Nicolas Appert, a Parisian cook publicized "The Art of Conserving Alimentary Substances of animal and plant origins," the tomato included.

Somewhere in history it was narrated that a few of Abraham Lincoln's (American President) politicians convinced the White

Fresh italian tomato soup with basil on top and tomatoes

House's cook to prepare a dish using a base of tomato-- to poison him. Obviously, after the dinner they found that it did not work. And this rendered the tomato its popularity, and thereafter it became one of Lincoln's pleasures; to eat tomatoes.

The United States was luckily introduced to the tomato in the year of 1710. Thomas Jefferson began to cultivate tomatoes in 1809, which made him a an original scientist in the tomato growing industry (and to mention his smuggling of pasta machines) in the U.S. Tomatoes were raved about in speeches, served at dinners, and continued to circulate in recipes, but a great deal of uncertainty was still lingering among the Americans concerning its safety. It proved to be a difficult task to convince the American public that tomatoes were a very safe fruit. But all of their worries were finally over when Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson gave his anecdote--an interesting method-- that was composed of sheer shock which broke the poison tomato syndrome.

On the 28th of September 1820, at high noon, there he stood in front of the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey. He announced that he would eat an entire basket of tomatoes. A countless crowd gathered to view his zany spectacle that was yet to come. He did as promised, and the antsy crowd stood in sheer terror that shrivelled to amazement as he was still standing there before them.

As time went on, however, the tomato was seen by many as a sign of good luck and prosperity. It used to be that, if a tomato was placed on a mantle over the fireplace, it was as a promise of prosperity to the family owning the new home, who eventually would start a new life. Certain times of the year tomatoes were hard to come by, and could not be grown, so in replacement, tomato sized balls of red fabric were stuffed with sand or sawdust and used in the place of the real ones. Comically, a new invention occurred as a result. These filled balls also doubled as pincushions! This was why pincushions were always replicas of the round red tomato.

Sewing basket with a tomato pincushion

Assume we think of the tomato, this assumption brings us to think of Italian or Spanish cuisine almost instantaneously. These cultures are not shy of using it in abundance, and it is highly praised by them. This fruit is not lacking in travelling moments. They have even been feared and avoided by many due to their classification in relation to other poisonous plants. Tomatoes have been thought of and closely related to love, and have brought us warmth of color and pleasure with their fragrance-without the tomato we would have never been blessed with that stuffed red cushion that slacks in the memories of so many.

By Jackelin J.Jarvis