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The 16th and 17th centuries must been an exciting period for European vegetable farmers as explorers and missionaries returned from the Americas with exotic, unheard–of seeds and plants.
Before Columbus completed his first voyage, Europeans had never seen tomatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet potatoes, and squashes of all sorts, potatoes, avocadoes, pepper, corn, cocoa and manioc. Some of the plants would not grow, others were mishandled, yet others never caught on with the public, but a few captured the imagination of millions in short order.
Tomatoes found and excellent home in San Marzano close to Naples,. They thrived there because of the perfect terroir and to this day San Marzano tomatoes remain the best for sauces. In South America, the place of origin, people enjoy tomatoes with a pinch of salt as fruit, and in fact, botanically they are. Since then, many verities have been created by ingenious plant breeders and amateurs alike, including shatter-resistant tomatoes that California farmers can ship across the continent with minimal bruises. Tomatoes represent a sizeable market in the produce industry.
Early in the 17th century, Jerusalem artichokes were introduced in Europe from Canada. Their flavour reminded Italians of the globe artichoke and they christened them girasol, after a close relative of artichoke. The English “twisted”: girasol to Jerusalem artichoke. Sweet tomatoes never caught on in Europe, and even Jerusalem artichokes are not widespread.
Avocados grew well in southern Spain, but due to poor transportation could not be shipped to many other European countries. They have gradually become popular since the end of World War II.
Corn, a staple of American First nations never interested European palates, except in northern Italy. Here, polenta, corn mash cooked with water and seasoned appropriately is popular, but elsewhere in Europe, corn has industrial uses in extracting oil and as cattle fodder. Occasionally people will boil or grill corn out-of-doors for fun. In the Middle East, corn flour is mixed with wheat for bread.
It would require the wisdom of centuries to disentangle the many verities of peppers and chiles. Usually, though, there are exceptions, the larger the pepper the milder it is, the smaller the hotter.
Bell peppers (green, red, yellow, purple and black) are all mild with a sweet piquancy. Spaniards call them pimiento,. French piment doux, and Italians pepperone. Hungarians’ love of pepper, which they call paprika, is well known. Many varieties have been developed and used in their goulash soups, porkolts (stewed pork or other meat with onions and seasonings).
Middle Eastern cooks use peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and zucchini for stuffing with rice, onions, pine nuts, dried currants, or ground lamb.
The Aztec nobility and rulers first consumed Cocoa, indigenous to South America, as an aphrodisiac drink. They used to drink up to 50 thimblefuls daily. When cocoa was introduced in Europe, the plant simply died. Then missionaries thought of refining cocoa as a drink with some success, but it was an imaginative Spanish entrepreneur who thought of creating a cocoa confection, which eventually evolved into chocolate. Italian. French, and Swiss confectioners all contributed to this evolution, and today, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and the U K. North American chocolate manufacturers in both Canada and the U S A produce finer chocolate and truffles in artisan enterprises, except a few industrial scale operations
The gastronomic contribution of New World vegetables and plants in Europe and the Middle East has been nothing short of revolutionary, and is quietly celebrated daily on millions of family tables.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu