Researchers determined that Aztecs developed the tomato, as we know it. When the first conquistadors arrived in Mexico, the red fruit attracted their attention and intrigued their taste buds. In the 1600’s, they shipped some to Europe, but at first tomato failed to enthuse the palates of Europeans. Then in a genial strike some “marketing guru” decided to label tomato as an aphrodisiac and named it poma amoris, the French in turn called it pomme d’amour. Of course it took off.
American colonists thought tomatoes to be poisonous because of the plant’s relation to the deadly nightshade family.
There are over 300 varieties of tomatoes grown commercially, and many more heirloom tomatoes that have now become the darling of specialty growers and high-end restaurants in California and elsewhere in North America.
The bulk of commercially grown tomatoes fall into three categories: round (globe-shaped medium-sized fruits and ideal for eating raw); Roma or Plum (meaty, elongated in shape, thick-skinned), and beefsteaks (similar to round tomatoes, but less juicy and best for cooking).
The tomato is a versatile fruit – yes, it is a fruit – low in calories (25 calories in a medium tomato), rich in lycopene and vitamin C. (Lycopene is an antioxidant that helps keep our immune system healthy. )
The best sauce tomatoes come from San Marzano, just outside of Naples, Italy, where both climatic conditions and soil composition are ideal this versatile fruit to acquire that bright red colour and pleasant acidity, not to speak of a delectable texture. Italians are masters of the tomato sauce often used in pastas, soups and pizzas. Of course, meat dishes and often stews are liberally flavoured with fresh or canned tomatoes.
San Marzano tomato seeds brought to North America and planted in many states produce a good crop, but the taste never compares with that of those grown near Naples. Terroir in growing tomatoes plays as much a role as it does for grapes. In the final analysis, for every vegetable and fruit, ideal growing conditions can be found in few locations and notion that forms the basis of – terroir (combination of soil and climate) Indian River in Florida is famous for its grapefruit, and southern California for navel oranges.
Tomatoes are also grown in hot houses in both North America and northern Europe. These fruits look shiny are unblemished and uniform in size, but from a taste perspective, they lack the very essence of tomato taste!
Hothouse tomatoes are available throughout the year and cost much more than that field grown, particularly when out-of-season.
As people want tomatoes all year round, scientists developed cold resistant and thick-skinned tomatoes that can mature is cooler regions, and more importantly transport well over long distances. Unfortunately, these tomatoes tend to have acid, “green-tasting” flavours with often-mealy texture.
In developing countries, no one even dreams of tomatoes out-of-season. Even canned tomatoes are rarely, if ever used there.
Tomatoes are versatile. In South American countries, people eat them as a snack between meals with a little salt sprinkled on them.
In western countries, tomatoes are used for sauces, stuffing with rice or meat, stewing, frying, baking, roasting and in salads.
In Sicily, they are sun-dried and used in winter. Oven dried tomatoes never taste as good as those dried naturally.
Cherry tomatoes, popular now, were developed in North America to increase popularity and reduce labour in preparation particularly in restaurants.
Tomatoes ought to be used in season, when fully ripe and selected according to the purpose of preparation. For sauces Roma tomatoes are best, for cooking beefsteaks result in better tasting dishes, and for salads round fruits yield the best taste.
Green tomatoes can be sautéed or pickled as commonly done in Middle Eastern countries.
Canned tomatoes are often used in commercial operations to save labour but both their taste and texture leave a lot to be desired.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu