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The French call it ‘pomme d’amour’ (love apple), Italian ‘pomodoro’ (golden apple), the Aztecs ‘tomatl’, but in English, it is simply tomato.
Botanically, the tomato is a fruit (actually a berry), but for all practical purposes, at least in North America and Europe, cooks use it as a vegetable. This red, sometimes golden coloured “fruit” belongs to the nightshade family, and a long time people believed it to be poisonous. Although the leaves are, the delicious tomato is versatile. It can be used in salads, in sauces, as a garnish, fried, grilled, pickled, dried, made to a paste, canned and used as a colouring for pastas. Many South Americans regard it as the most scrumptious of all fruits and eat it with a pinch of salt.
The wild tomato is indigenous to Peru and Ecuador, but the Aztecs and other Central American Indian nations were first to cultivate it. Several strains were developed, and even today, researchers develop tomatoes with different characteristics. The most notable, a few years ago, was a strain that contained in its DNA a fish gene to it more resistant to frosts. Mercifully, it never caught on.
When Spanish conquistadors first encountered tomatoes in the beginning of the 16th century (1520’s) they found both the taste and textural characteristics of tomato intriguing enough to take the seeds back to Spain. By 1544, southern Italians are said to have been enjoying tomatoes without salt and pepper, and called it ‘pomodoro’. At that time, pepper was a precious commodity, and Italians might have thought the tomato not worth it!
Mediterranean nations, Portuguese, Spaniards and Italians took to the tomato; in other countries, the plant enjoyed an ornamental status. This ignorance lasted approximately two centuries, fueled by the physicians of the time who were warning that tomatoes had no nutritional value and caused all kinds of diseases.
Surprisingly, although tomato is indigenous to South America, it reached North American via Europe, and was brought here by the pilgrims. It became popular only after Colonel Robert Johnson at a large quantity of tomatoes in 1820 in front of thousands of spectators who believed he would have died.
Today, tomatoes are grown on all continents, and in different sizes. Cooks everywhere use it one for or another, even in regions too cold to grow this sub-tropical and fragile plant.
North Americans love tomatoes and expect to find it on grocery shelves throughout the year, whereas in most other countries it is consumed fresh in season. Out of season people, eat pickled tomatoes, or sauce, or canned prepared in one of the many ways. Actually, around the Mediterranean, people rarely use canned foods. There is a natural resistance to canned food, but gradually this aversion seems to be changing particularly with improved quality of cans that preserve the taste better than those used in the past.
The best sauce tomatoes grow just outside of Naples in San Marzano. In fact, pizza sauce was invented there. To an Italian, pizza is a thin dough laced with tomato cause, onions, basil, and mozzarella, and eaten as an appetizer. American style thick crust doughty pizza has been imported to Italy, and seems to be popular with American tourists who flock there by the millions every year.
Once tomato became popular, hybridizers and plant researchers, set out to ”improve” it by breeding variations in colour, size, texture, and cold resistance. Today there are thousands of varieties, but only a few have commercial value; the rest go under the collective title of heirloom tomatoes.
Of late, hothouse tomatoes, sold by the bunch, have become popular. There are offered next to field grown tomatoes and seem to be quite popular, probably due to their uniform dark red colour and clean smooth skin. From a taste and texture perspective, hothouse tomatoes cannot compete with properly ripened, fresh, field grown specimens. On the other hand, they may be better than those imported from thousands of kilometres away All are picked green and unripe. They ripen during transportation and taste like mush or cotton. Big, bright red, juicy, and meaty beefsteak tomatoes are available in farmers’ markets in late summer and early fall.
Red or yellow cherry tomatoes are small (2.5 cm. in diameter) and a favourite in restaurants for salads and as a garnish. They should be served halved to prevent squirting when pierced. Grape tomatoes, still smaller than cherry tomatoes are now becoming popular with diners. Plum tomatoes a k a San Marzano are the classic meaty cooking variety with fee seeds, mostly used for sauces. Housewives who value taste above all else buy bushels of plum tomatoes in season and make tomato sauce for their pastas. By all accounts there is no comparison between an expertly cooked tomato sauce from scratch to one store-bought.
Avid gardeners and a few organic vegetable farmers who sell their produce in markets and to restaurateurs grow heirloom tomatoes. These tomatoes are fragile, thin skinned like their original ancestors, mostly bigger than commercial varieties and come in unusual shapes and colours. Some are yellow, some maroon, and yet others striped-green, or golden. Being juicy, and full of flavour, they are generally tastier than the garden variety.
Soon Ontario grown field tomatoes (beefsteak and Roma) will be available in markets or even pick-you-own farms. Buy them. Better yet. Drive to a pick-you-own farm and harvest those ripe succulent, bright red beauties while in their prime of local tomato season. Come home, spread butter on a slice of German rye bread, cover it with a few slices of tomatoes, sprinkle with sea salt, a few grinds of pepper, a few drops of extra virgin olive oil, and garnish with julienned fresh basil leaves! Enjoy!
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu