Simply Red

According to country tradition, during the days following the Ferragosto holiday (August15) the women prepare their preserves for the winter. Out in the farmyard (because it is too hot inside) they light fires and place huge pots on them to sterilize the jars in boiling water. The preserves may be made from fruit or vegetables and each housewife has her own little secrets to make them really special.
The most commonly-made preserve in Italy, with a thousand variations, is tomato sauce, a summer product par excellence – if we take into account that seasonal products still exist in the country. Just last week, in this column, we discovered that new varieties of tomatoes are created by cross-breeding the seeds of traditional varieties in experimental fields in exotic locations, swathed in an aura of mystery. The result is that we have tomatoes of all shapes and sizes, in all seasons, for all possible culinary purposes. Cooks can choose between beefheart, cherry and salad varieties or search for the old varieties which are disappearing: the Parma costate variety, the Principe Borghese, the Tondino, the Pachino, the famous San Marzano, the Re Umberto I or pummarola Fiascone, as they say in Naples. And even newer varieties like the Camone or Piccadilly are rich in positive organoleptic features.
There are numerous new possibilities for hybridizing, which have always stirred the imagination of botanists and researchers; at least, since the western world realized that the tomato was not an ornamental plant but a vegetable with remarkable nutritional properties. The fact is that for almost two hundred years, the delights of this fruit (almost a religion for the Neapolitans) were known only to a few enthusiastic gourmets and experimenters.
The plant, like many of our other common vegetable plants, originated from the South American continent, between Mexico and Peru: it was domesticated by native peoples and subsequently exported by the conquistadors to the Old Continent. Its very name – tomato, tomate, tomatica, in Piedmontese dialect – derives from the Aztec and Maya languages in which it was called tomatl. Its Italian name, pomodoro, was probably influenced by French. Indeed the most widely accepted theories say that this name derives from Pomme d’Or or Pomme d’Amour, the names given by the French to these beautiful and ornamental fruits, also thought to be an aphrodisiac prior to the French revolution (in some areas of Great Britain tomatoes are still called “love apples”).
The first written mention of tomatoes as a food product dates back to the mid-16th century, when the herbalist Mattioli described it in his treatise Medici Semensis Commentario as a “kind of eggplant” which some ate fried in oil with salt and pepper. Though the Italians and Spanish were the first to accept and enjoy tomatoes, it is however also true that until the 18th century there is no further record of tomatoes used in cooking – pasta cooked with tomatoes was first mentioned in 1839 by Ippolito Cavalcanti in his recipe book “Cucina teorico pratica”. The use of tomatoes was restricted by prejudice due to the belief that they were poisonous, and in the United States this mistrust was only overcome in 1820 when colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson ate the fruit before an ill-disposed crowd in front of the law-courts in Salem, Massachusetts as a provocation – evocative of the famous stories of witchcraft linked to that city – and failed to die of poison.
Tomatoes have a long, complex history full of curious anecdotes like this, which it is interesting to explore, also because today it is increasingly important – if not vital – to know exactly what we are eating and where it comes from. We’ve had enough nasty surprises.

Carlo Petrini

from La Stampa 19/08/2001

(English adaptation by Ailsa Wood)

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