It seems the bright colour and strong fragrance of a ripe tomato meant it took a little time and courage before it was widely embraced as food and cultivated as crop, both in the ancient Americas and Europe. But once tried, the delectable and versatile tomato became much-loved in the Mediterranean. Now its hard to imagine how bland the culinary world might be without it.
Discovery and Dissemination
Tomatoes originated in South America and like potatoes, they are also part of the nightshade family. The first tomatoes are likely to have grown on the West Coast of America on lowlands and river banks spanning from the Peruvian Andes towards the Pacific Ocean. In his book The Origin of Fruits and Vegetables, Jonathan Roberts states, ‘The early Peruvians seem to have ignored it, no word for it survives in their languages, nor any trace on their early pottery or textiles. Perhaps they picked and ate the fruits wild as they passed. No attempt at domestication seems to have been made at a time when maize, potatoes and cassava were being cultivated.’ It was not until AD 500 that archaeologists believe tomatoes were grown as crops in central America, specifically the Veracruz/Puebla region of Mexico.
Once the Spanish reached Mexico in 1519, Cortez recorded the Aztecs growing a yellow (sometimes red) fruit called tomatl. This tomato was shipped back to Spain, where it was also introduced into Italy (Naples was under Spanish rule in 1522).
In 1554 a Herbal published in Venice by Mattioli described the new tomato as a mandrake (a poisonous plant feared in the Mediterranean). He also named it mala aurea, pomodoro or ‘golden apple’ in Latin. However botanists soon discovered it actually belonged to the nightshade family and named it solanum lycopericum, it was labeled as ‘wolf peach’.
Both herbalists and the general public in Europe regarded tomatoes with great suspicion, believing them to have digestive side effects and little nutrition. In fact it is true that the leaves of the tomato plant do contain toxic alkaloids, however the fruit does not. For many years the tomato was simply grown as an ornamental curiosity of the ‘New World’ and not as food.
However, by the 1700s and into the turn of the nineteenth century tomatoes were becoming increasingly popular, they began appearing at the markets and in still life paintings. People were cultivating them in their domestic gardens in both Europe and America and the development of new varieties began in the 1800s.
A ripe red tomato is packed with carotenes (especially lycopene), vitamin C, biotin, vitamin K, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, niacin, folic acid and fibre.
In fact, lycopene, an antioxidant responsible for the red colour in a tomato has been researched for its protective properties in relation to cancer, heart disease, macular degeneration and prostate health.
Lycopene is released from the plant cells as a tomato is processed, so eating tomato juice or paste actually delivers more lycopene than eating a raw tomato. Ingesting lycopene with oil can aid absorption, as does the assimilation of many other fat soluble vitamins in a tomato. This means adding a generous splash of olive oil is a very good idea.
When in season Wise Cicada stocks a selection of special heirloom varieties as well as delicious certified organic vine and cherry tomatoes. Just come in and chat to our produce manager Rod.