One of the most widely used ingredients in international cookery is the tomato. Many cuisines would be simply unimaginable without its delicious presence - Italian, Spanish and Provencal immediately spring to mind, but they are also widely used throughout Europe, the Americas, the Antipodes, the Middle East, Africa, the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia.
The tomato is native to the Andes region of South America, but was first domesticated for culinary use in Mexico, where the local Nahuatl dialect for the plant, tomatl provided tomatoes with their English and French (tomate) name.
Returning Conquistadors introduced tomatoes into Europe in 1523 and by the end of the Sixteenth Century the plant was established in Spain, France, England and Italy, but curiously enough - not for eating. In its early European days tomatoes were grown purely for ornamental reasons due to the supposition that the plant was poisonous. This is most likely due to the fact that tomatoes are in the Nightshade family, along with tobacco, the poisonous deadly nightshade and the hallucinogenic jimson weed. They were not entirely incorrect - tomato leaves are toxic.
As with many issues culinary, it was the Italians who were the first westerners to embrace the tomato as the wonderful ingredient it is. Vincenzo Corrado, in his 1765 epicurean treatise, Cuoco Galante (The Gallant Cook) describes the use of tomatoes for sauce making, stuffing and frying.
Doubt as to the plant's edibility remained firm throughout the rest of Europe, and even the official Eighteenth Century Latin binomial classification, Lycopercsicum esculentum, or edible wolf's peach did little to quell the confusion. Large scale planting for the table did not start in Europe until the middle of the Nineteenth Century and doubt remained in North America until the turn of the Twentieth century.
The first tomatoes brought back to Europe were in all likelihood yellow, as evidenced by the Italian pomodoro, or golden apple.
Although there are literally hundreds of tomato hybrids, of all different shapes and colour; some red, some yellow, some purple, some striped, you will be lucky to see more than three or four varieties for sale at your local market. These will almost never be identified by name (with the exception of the roma tomato). For the purpose of identification, tomatoes are generally sorted into 5 broad groups.
- Beef or Ox tomatoes are the big daddies of the tomato world. They are identified by their large size, thick flesh and the deep ridges that run down from the top of the fruit. They are perfect for slicing into salads, grilling (broiling) and pan-frying thick wedges. The tomato of this type you are most likely to encounter is the formidably sized ox heart.
- Cherry tomatoes are correspondingly the smallest and are usually eaten whole or halved, either raw in salads or briefly cooked. These bear the strongest resemblance to the wild varieties still found in South and Central America. The better varieties are wondrously sweet and include the tiny tim and tear drop hybrids. As well, quoi? points out that a grape-shaped variety known as grape tomatoes are leaping in popularity in the U.S. I have yet to see them here in Australia – but will keep my eyes peeled. It seems they could either fall into the cherry tomato group, or plum tomatoes – as a baby variety.
- Hollow tomatoes are medium sized with thick flesh and hollow compartments from which the seeds can be easily scooped. They are generally used for stuffed tomatoes, with the yellow hued golden filler being a notable type.
- Round tomatoes are the most common varieties. They have a medium size and uniform appearance. They are an all-purpose tomato used for sauces, salads, sandwiches and the like. These are the type you will generally see at the supermarket simply sold as "tomatoes". Grosse lisse is a particularly good example.
- Plum tomatoes are elongated and slightly egg-shaped. They have a particularly high flesh to pulp ratio that makes them the first choice for drying and sauce making. The most famous of this type is the roma tomato.
Fruit or Vegetable?
This has been a long-standing conundrum. In a culinary sense, tomatoes are overwhelming treated as a vegetable. However, they are in fact a fruit, or in the correct biological and anatomical sense - a berry. This was not enough to sway the United States Supreme Court, which in an infamous late Nineteenth century case, ruled otherwise.
A New York based food importer received a shipment of tomatoes from the West Indies. He declared them as a fruit so as to claim the duty-free status fruit enjoyed at the time. The Customs department begged to differ and slapped a 10% duty on the consignment. The court ruled for the customs agent and among its findings stated that tomatoes are:
"usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meat, which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits, generally as dessert"
The flavour of tomatoes is often bemoaned, especially supermarket tomatoes. There is fact behind the current catch-cry that tomatoes don't taste like they used to.
All too often tomatoes are bred for uniform appearance and firm texture when fully coloured (I hesitate to use the word ripe in this instance). They are picked when immature and still green, moved to cold storage, then ripened with ethylene gas when needed for sale. Is it any wonder these tomatoes end up as Kramer would say, "sub-par"? The use of ethylene for ripening was first discovered in the Caribbean Islands around 1910, when a consignment of oranges stored near bananas ripened sooner than the other oranges stored elsewhere. Bananas naturally emit this simple hydrocarbon gas and this effect can be harnessed to quickly soften a hard avocado by placing it in a paper bag with a banana peel. Unfortunately ethylene does little for the flavour of a tomato - its effect lies mostly with the colour.
Another trend that has hit the market in the last 20 years is Hydroponic agriculture. Hydroponically grown tomatoes often look fabulous, deep red with a fresh looking green calyx at the top. Unfortunately they seldom deliver as far as flavour is concerned.
Two tips for finding good tomatoes. Firstly, always buy them in peak season. Tomatoes are at their best in mid to late summer and early autumn. Secondly, try to find a supplier who sells organically grown, sun and vine-ripened tomatoes. These are generally sold in bunches with the green stem and calyx still attached - an indication that they were picked when fully or nearly ripe. These tomatoes tend to be more expensive than their supermarket cousins, but hey remember - you gotta eat this stuff.
Another option to get great tomatoes is to grow them yourself. Apart from pests that tend to be troublesome late in their growth period, they are not very hard to grow. You will not only get the satisfaction of growing your own to perfect ripeness, but also have a choice of hundreds of so-called "heirloom" varieties, each with their own unique flavour characteristic. The wonderful notion of seed banks, which post you the seeds, you grow the stuff, and then you return the product seeds back to the bank are a perfect place to search for delicious and unusual tomato varieties.
In Australia have a look at The Diggers Club.
North Americans try Seed Savers.
There is an Irish seed savers group.
As well as a New Zealand branch.
Have a scout around for similar organizations in you area
A quick tip
Often a recipe will call for peeled tomatoes. This is a very simple affair and can be achieved by following these steps.
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil
- Cut a cross through the top of the tomato - at the calyx or stem end
- Plunge them into the boiling water and leave for 30 seconds
- Immediately drain and place into cold water
- The skins will slip away easily
Hungry yet? Well get cooking, as E2 has an abundance of fabulous tomato recipes. Here are a few to get you started.