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Pleasures of the pomme d’amour

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The tomato has grown in popularity since its ‘discovery’ by conquistadors

The summer that I first started dating my husband, he was responsible for his parent’s vast vegetable garden while they were away for several weeks. We got up one morning and, armed only with a saltshaker between us, we breakfasted on huge, ripe, warm tomatoes; knee deep in tomato vines, our toes warmed by the soil, eating them whole out of hand. I was already in love with him, but if it were possible, I fell even more so.

Indeed, in the south of France, the tomato has been nick-named pomme d’amour or "love apple." It is a favourite ingredient in kitchens the world over. It is hard to imagine Italian pasta sauce, Spanish paella or Indian curry without the robust, red flush and flavour the tomato lends to these dishes, not to mention an American icon – ketchup.

The word tomato actually comes from the Aztec word for the fruit, tomatl. The tomato plant is native to Peru in South America. It is a member of the nightshade family (eggplants and potatoes are too). The plant was brought to Europe from Central America by the Spanish conquistadors (it had made its way up north to Mexico by that time).

In 16th century Spain the tomato was met with little enthusiasm as the plant was feared like various other members of the nightshade family. For many years it was grown purely as an ornamental plant, called a Peruvian apple. It was not until the 18th century that the Spanish began cultivating the plant for its fruit. From there it made its way to northern Italy and southern France. Advocates of the plant were unable to convince Paris of the benefits of the tomato until as late as 1790. And it was not until the 20th century that the plant developed popularity in North America.

Today the tomato is classified as one of the United States’ favourite vegetables. The tomato is, in biological terms, a fruit. The U.S. government labelled the tomato "a vegetable" in 1893 for trade purposes.

Tomatoes that are grown today are a far cry from the original fruit they once were. Many hybrid varieties have been bred to withstand shipping rather than for texture or flavour. As a result, a lot of the tomatoes we buy at the supermarket are bland, mushy and tasteless. Even though they are a bit more expensive it is well worth buying "vine-ripened" tomatoes at the grocery store as they will repay you in flavour far beyond the regular bulk ones. Those tomatoes, unless picked in season, locally, were picked green and most likely sprayed with ethylene gas to ripen them.

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