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From poison to passion

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The mighty tomato and its secret past

They hang heavy on the vine like magical red lanterns, just in time to celebrate this week’s Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival.

Their fat little faces, nestled amongst yellowing leaves, peer out from under plastic sheeting draped by doting gardeners determined to protect them from the crisp night air and ripen as many as possible before winter sets in. And when it does, their hearty tang and lush redness gladdens many a heart and reminds us of golden summer days just past.

From simple salads and to sophisticated sauces, what would we do without the mighty tomato?

Name a 19-year-old who hasn’t cranked open a tin of tomato sauce during their first tentative forays into a kitchen. And who doesn’t turn to tomatoes tinned, fresh or otherwise to dress up eggplant, seafood or plain old macaroni on a moment’s notice?

But the tomato hasn’t always been a cook’s best friend. For much of its long history it has been accused, quite unfairly, of one transgression or another.

Wild tomatoes, the forbearers of our contemporary cultivated ones, originated in the northern Andes in area which included parts of present-day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Chile. The plants sprawled through tall grasses. While the small, bright red fruits – much like cherry tomatoes – may have been casually plucked, Incas and other early Andean people did not bother to cultivate the plant.

It took centuries, but the tomato managed to spread northward into what is now Central America and Mexico, its tough seed dispersed by birds into regions inhabited by pre-Mayan Indians. It was these people who domesticated the fruit that Cortes and his fellow explorers eventually took back to Europe.

The Aztecs, who called the fruit tomatl , prized a yellow variety, which the Spaniards dispatched home. Hence, the first common European name, "golden fruit", from the Italian pomodoro.

But the passion southern Europeans first bestowed on tomatoes – one shared with another New World import, the eggplant – was quickly dampened. Botanists identified the tomato as a member of the family, Solanaceae , whose members include belladonna and deadly nightshade.

So the tomato was toyed with (recipes are included in early herbal books for its preparation), but with a good deal of caution, much like one enters certain love affairs. Pietro Antonio Michiel wrote in the 16th century: "If I should eat of this fruit, cut in slices in a pan with butter and oil, it would be injurious and harmful to me." Yikes.

Indeed, the leaves and stems of the tomato plant are mildly poisonous, but the toxic alkaloids responsible are perfectly inert and harmless in the fruit. Still, early herbal books called the fruit everything from atrocious to tasteless, one early French source saying it provoked "loathing and vomiting", another attributing colic and diarrhoea to ripe tomatoes.

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