Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The History of the Tomato!

Think of Italian food and you can’t help but see red! Italian chefs use no fruit (or vegetable) as much as they use the tomato – it crops up in every region and in a variety of dishes – with meat, seafood and that delicious and classic combination of tomato salad with creamy mozzarella cheese and just a drizzle of extra-virgin, olive oil.

Surprisingly, though, just as pasta came to Italy from the Far East, the tomato is a blow-in from further afield. The first tomatoes came back to Europe with Cortez, alongside the cocoa bean, after his South American expedition of 1519. At that time, cocoa was considered so valuable that it was used as a form of currency.

The tomato, however, was not an immediate culinary or financial hit. Over most of Europe the plant was considered poisonous (probably because the leaves of the tomato plant are poisonous). It was grown in the gardens of the rich as an ornamental curiosity and did not make its way into the kitchen garden for another two hundred and fifty years.

Initially, the variety of choice was the yellow tomato or pomme d’oro (golden apple) and it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that red varieties (which grow wild in South America) became common in Italy. Still, many physicians warned against eating tomatoes as they believed the fruit to cause stomach cancer and appendicitis. Today the tomato’s health benefits are fully researched and widely known and it is a key ingredient of the healthy, Mediterranean diet.

Of course, no Italian housewife worth her salt would buy the pallid tomatoes available on most supermarket shelves today, but some enterprising chains are now stocking more heritage varieties. They are well worth the few extra pennies. Flavours’ favourites are all from heirloom seeds like Roma, San Marzano, Marmande, Rio Grande and many of the Cherries. We’re such enthusiasts, we’ve been know to grow our own, in the traditional way alongside nasturtiums, poppies and marigolds as they attract insects that eat afids and other parasites.

Tomatoes are a must-have ingredient at all Flavours venues from the pizzas we cook in our outdoor pizza oven in Puglia to the traditional Bolognaise sauce for tagliatelle in, well, Bologna!

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