Edible histories: tomatoes

Categories: History of food

From Aztec markets to European menus, with a long interlude as a culinary pariah: Mark Riddaway on the history of the tomato

Words: Mark Riddaway

John Gerard, the popular Elizabethan herbalist, understood the true nature of the tomato—a weird new fruit whose seeds he had sourced from Spain, Italy and “such hot countries” and planted in his garden. “The whole plant,” he wrote in 1597, “is of rank and stinking savour.” Those savage types found in “hot regions” might be willing to eat such a disgusting item, but any nourishment it yielded would be “naught and corrupt”.

Like many of his contemporaries, Gerard was convinced that, while an interesting ornamental plant, the tomato had no place in the kitchen. How they came to this conclusion, and how the realisation of their monumental error slowly dawned upon a continent needlessly deprived of tangy soups, sauces and salads, says much about how our forebears viewed food.

The wild tomato seemingly originated in the coastal highlands of Peru, Ecuador and Chile, before finding its way to Central America where, across quite a small geographical area, it was eventually domesticated by Mesoamerican farmers.

It is easy to see the appeal of the tomato to cultures that had long ago fallen in love with the tomatillo—despite being entirely different genera, the two are very similar in appearance. The tomatillo was known by the Aztecs as ‘tomatl’; this new plant was given the name ‘xitomatl’.

Rosy dawn coloured
In 1519, Hernán Cortés and his conquistadores arrived in Mexico. The Spanish cleric Bernardino Sahagún described finding the great Aztec market of Tenochtitlan packed full of tomatoes of all shapes and sizes, “those which are yellow, very yellow, quite yellow, red, very red, quite ruddy, bright red, reddish, rosy dawn coloured”. He wrote that the natives liked to combine tomatoes with chillies and ground squash seeds to make a salsa for seafood or meat.

From Mexico, these exotic fruits soon made their way to Europe. The earliest written reference to their presence here comes from Italy. In his De Materia Medica (1544), the herbalist Pietro Andrea Mattioli described what he believed to be a new species of aubergine, “segmented, green at first and when ripe of a golden colour”, which could be cooked, then flavoured with salt, black pepper and oil. In a revised version of the book, published 10 years later, he gave it an Italian name: ‘pomo d’oro’, meaning ‘golden apple’.

Renaissance herbalists were like the clean-eating food bloggers of their day—similarly influential and scientifically suspect, but with more classical references and fewer sublimated eating disorders. Being in awe of their ancient forebears, they would scour the works of Dioscorides, Galen, Pliny, Theophrastusto, and even the Bible, to find clues as to the nature of the freakish botanical arrivals then flooding into Europe from Asia and the Americas.

Might the tomato be Galen’s lycopsericon (wolf’s peach), they asked, or Dioscorides’ glaucium? Could it be the golden apple from the garden of the Hesperides, or perhaps the biblical mandrake? All of these names were used to describe the tomato, as was ‘love apple’—possibly a nod to the mythical properties of the mandrake, or maybe an allusion to something altogether more lewd.

Pomme d’amour
Largely because of its name, it is often said that the love apple (‘pomme d’amour’ in French), was considered an aphrodisiac, but there’s little evidence of this. No one seemed to be eating tomatoes in the hope of a night of passion. In fact, people were barely even eating them in the hope of a nice salad. If anything, it’s supposed physical properties made the tomato a guaranteed passion killer.

At the time, European medicine borrowed heavily upon Galen’s ancient system of ‘humours’. Plants had different ‘qualities’ (hot, cold, moist, dry), and eating them could be either beneficial or dangerous, depending upon the balance of your humours.

While they may have been moist (largely a good thing), tomatoes were also deemed to be cold—according to Gerard, “perhaps in the highest degree of coldness”—which was unequivocally bad. The Venetian botanist Pietro Antonio Michiel insisted that their smell alone could cause eye diseases and headaches, while the physician Giovanni Domenico Sala, writing in 1628, called them “strange and horrible things” that only “a few unwise people” were willing to eat. 

This reticence is easy to understand. Tomatoes were both foreign—although contemporary writers were highly confused as to their origins: Peru? India? Spain?—and odd. They didn’t look or taste like anything that Europeans had seen before, and they probably didn’t taste anything like as good as they do now, after centuries of selective breeding. Plus, the leaves, stems and unripe fruits genuinely are toxic. The consensus was: steer clear.

Lowest form of sustenance
It was Italy that proved most willing to embrace the tomato. It grew well there, and Italians were generally less averse to the consumption of vegetables than, for example, the British, who considered plants the lowest form of sustenance. By the end of the 17th century, Italy’s greatest chef, Antionio Lantini, was happily using the tomato as an ingredient.

His famous book, Lo Scalco Alla Moderna, published in the 1690s, included three such recipes: a sauce of tomatoes, chillies, thyme, salt, oil and vinegar; a dish of sautéed aubergine, onion, squash and tomato; and ‘cassuola di pomadoro’, in which roasted tomatoes were added to a stew of pigeon, veal, chicken necks, herbs, eggs and lemon juice. Oh, and some testicles.

Among the most appealing aspects of the tomato are the ease with which it can be preserved and the versality and intensity of the resulting products. Again, Italy was the pioneer.

An anonymous Sardinian document from the mid-18th century includes a recipe for a tart condiment of unripe tomatoes, chillies, sour grapes and vinegar, plus a simple version of the sun-dried tomato: sliced in half, salted, dried and bottled. By the 1790s, the kitchens of the Saluzzo family in Calabria were making use of a concentrated tomato paste, known as ‘conserva di pomodoro’.

For a while, the British remained stubbornly ignorant of the joys of the tomato. An English dictionary of ‘difficult terms’, published in 1677, described the love apple as “a Spanish root of a colour near violet”. Other than it not being Spanish, or a root, or anything close to violet, this was extremely useful information.

Mother of English cookery
Hannah Glasse, the mother of English cookery writing, included tomatoes in just one of her recipes. Published in 1758 and entitled ‘to dress haddocks the Spanish way’, it involved cooking the fish with spices, garlic, vinegar and “some love apples, when in season”.

And yet, the 1797 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica stated: “The tomato is in daily use, being either boiled in soups or broths, or served up boiled as garnishes to flesh and meats.” As the 19th century dawned, across the continent the dam was breaking, and the tomato was finding a prominent place in European cooking.

This was partly a result of the gradual discrediting of those ancient Galenic theories. And it was seemingly driven from the ground up—peasants tend to worry less about classical botany and more about whether something grows easily and stops them from starving.

It is hard now to imagine a Europe without pasta al pomodoro, ratatouille, gazpacho or the cheese and tomato sandwich, but none of these dishes were popularised until at least the 19th century. It would have been nigh on impossible for John Gerard to imagine a self-respecting Englishman eating any one of them.