It's early May and if you look in my cellar right now you will find a couple of dozen young tomato plants under my grow light nearly ready to be planted out in my vegetable beds (within two weeks, after fear of frost is gone). My mind always fills with thoughts of tomatoes in this time of year... and hopes that there will be a good yield for our little famiglia...
If I say, "tomato sauce" you think of Italian food, right? If I say "home grown tomatoes" you might think of Vito Corleone playing with his grandson in his garden in that final scene in his life. If I say "pizza" you picture a round crust with cheese and tomato sauce. The red color is essential. Some say that Il Tricolore (the tricolor flag of Italy) represents the hills of Italy with green, the snow capped mountains with white, and the blood spilled from the wars of independence by red. But others in la cucina Italiana would argue that the green is for pesto, the white for besciamella and the red for salsa pomodoro found in tri-color lasagna... or that the flag represents the simple but wonderful insalata caprese: green for basil, white for mozzarella, and the red for ripe tomatoes. In any case, you might say the red in Il Tricolore represent the true blood of Italy--the tomato.
But how did the tomato become such a strong part of Italian culture? It is not indigenous to Italy, or Europe for that matter. The tomato was first "discovered" by the Spanish Conquistadors while exploring and then conquering the Americas. The tomato most likely originated in the Andes mountains of Peru and spread sometime in the distant past to most parts of South and Central America and eventually on up to Mexico. The odd thing is that the tomato became popular in Europe long before it came to be used in North America. Colonial Americans thought of the tomato as a poisonous plant, after all, it's a close cousin or Nightshade, a well know toxic vine, and in fact, the leaves and vines of the tomato plant are fairly toxic.
The 1500s came with Columbus and other explorers introducing the tomato to Europe, but there was about 200 years of skepticism before the tomato gained acceptance there--again, it was thought one touch of a tomato on the lips would kill you. One likely catalyst for its popularity in Europe, especially with the wealthy and elite was the rumor that it was an aphrodisiac. The general population more than likely heard about this new fruit and saw that the Barons behind the castle walls were flourishing, not falling down dead. One can imagine that the trash middens where refuse from the castles, chateaus and villas were thrown became a great source of distribution for the tomato plant--everyone knows that tomatoes are very prolific--their seeds can spring up anywhere. Little by little, the peasants discovered gnarly vines growing wild with attractive red or yellow fruits were attracting wild life. "Why not give them a try? The birds, squirrels and rabbits aren't dying, after all." Presto... a free, easily grown source of vitamins and amazing flavor. It was easy to save seeds and properly cultivate a very large harvest from even a modest number of plants.
The word tomato is derived from the Aztec word xitomatl, which when it got to Europe was shortened to tomatl. The French originally called the tomato, pomme d’amour (love apple) before calling simply la tomate. Perhaps they changed the name when the aphrodisiac claims failed to have any effect. In Italy it was pomi d’oro (golden apple) which today becomes il pomodoro. Tomatoes do come in a wide variety of colors, including golden yellow, but along with tomatoes, tomatillos also came from the Americas--many of which are also yellow. In Italy, the tomato more than likely prospered because of its near-tropical climate. The tomato can be grown all year long in tropical temperatures.
The first time the pomi d'oro is mentioned by name in Italy was in 1548 in Tuscany. As far back as 1692, tomatoes were used as ingredients in a cookbook from Naples, but the author obviously copied details from Spanish recipes. It makes sense the Spanish had tomatoes first, after all, they backed Columbus's explorations--even though he was an Italian. In this way, Spaniards actually led the way, "teaching" Italians to fry tomatoes up with eggplant, squash and onions, and used the dish as a condiment on bread and with meats. The cuisine of Southern Italian peasants, who often lacked meats and other proteins on a regular basis, developed into a mostly vegetarian diet in which tomatoes and olive oil, spices and vegetables were and eaten with bread, rice or polenta.
It took another 200 years for the tomato to become the national treasure is it today, but by the late 1700s, the peasants of Naples began to put tomatoes on top of their flat breads, creating something very close to the modern pizza. It gained popularity, especially with the elite of Europe and America taking the Grand Tour, and soon pizza attracted tourists to Naples, tempting them into the poor areas of the city to sample the new treat. Pizza was born. Soon after taking a Grand Tour himself, Thomas Jefferson, being an expert farmer and a culinary expert, brought tomato seeds back from Europe. He grew, cooked and wrote about the tomato. Slow but sure, people took notice of this special fruit.
In the same time period we find the first recorded evidence of tomatoes used in sauces and preserved condiments and pastes. In the 1800s, in Naples a recipe was written about-- pasta al pomodoro, the very first mention of tomatoes being married to pasta. In 1889, after Italy became one nation, the King and Queen of Italy found it necessary to visit the former kingdom of Naples to appease the citizenry who disliked their loss of independence. Queen Margherita was bored with the same old French cuisine that they were eating everywhere they went--as was the custom in all of Europe. She called for the most famous pizza-maker in Naples, Raffaele Esposito, and commanded that he make pizza for her. He brought three types: pizza marinara with garlic, pizza Napoli with anchovies and a third with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil leaves. She fell in love with the third one and Esposito named it after her-- Pizza Margherita. A short time later, the Queen sent her emissary with a thank you note, which still today hangs on the wall of Pizzeria Brandi, still run by his descendants. Pizza--with tomato sauce--was to become more popular than ever after the Queen's royal recommendation--the equivalent to Royal Yelp nowadays.
If anything, emigration to the United States did more to increase the popularity of the tomato than anything else in history. Because of the climate in Italy, tomatoes became a big crop, even small farmers produced an excess of the sweet fruits. A need developed to preserve them, and to create new markets. The only foods that may be safely canned in an ordinary boiling water bath are highly acidic ones--coincidentally, tomatoes are naturally high in acid. Sun drying tomatoes and storing them in olive oil was also a proven way to preserve large stores of tomatoes, as long as no fresh herbs or garlic were added, the method a safe with a long shelf life.
During the mid-1800s the science of canning started to develop and improve, allowing this new cash crop to find its way to distant markets. By the end of the 19th century Italians were already using tomatoes in their recipes and as a condiment. When Italians emigrated to America, they wanted to have products that reminded them of home... canned tomatoes filled that need, along with olive oil and other specialty imports. Italians at home and expats in American developed import-export businesses to give relatives and other their compagni jobs based on their new found wealth in America. In Italy, exporting companies were popping up, especially in the Naples area. By the time World War I rolled around, even the Italian Army experimented with canned ravioli, spaghetti alla bolognese and Pasta e fagioli, the inclusion of acidic tomatoes in the recipes aided in the cans' shelf life. Italian grocery stores stocked these products in Little Italy neighborhoods in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans.
So, with the advent of this international distribution of peeled tomatoes (pelati), the ancient fruit finally came back to the Americas... not via its neighbor, Mexico, but the long way around, through Italy and Europe.
When growing tomatoes at home, you have to know if your variety is "determinate" or "indeterminate". The first grows and produces tomatoes only to a set height and then stops producing. The latter keeps on growing and producing fruit as long as the season is warm and long enough.
The best known tomato for canning became a plum shaped variety grown in the San Marzano region, near Naples. It's no small coincidence that this is in Southern Italy, where 80% of Italian immigrants came from. San Marzano became the go-to tomato for canning over 120 years ago, and is still the primary tomato used in canned tomatoes--and even for the production of sun dried tomatoes. The San Marzano tomato even has DOP protected status by the European Union (look for their seal on a can to make sure they are the real deal). The first Italian cannery was built in 1875 by Francesco Cirio, an early supporter of the San Marzano tomato. His company picked, peeled, packed and shipped canned tomatoes all throughout Italy--and later to America.
The reason for it's success is not because it's the best tasting tomato... it's simply because it was developed and hybridized from three other varieties which made it withstand mechanical harvesting techniques put in place in the late 1800s to satisfy the needs of the growing canning industry. Sort of takes the romance out of thinking the San Marzano is "the best" Italian tomato, doesn't it? No great loss. Truth be told, the San Marzano is so acidic that all great Italian chefs know it needs a handful of sugar to offset the overly high acidic content. Lucas and I had an "artisinal pizza" once in a town near us where the pizza chef swore he used nothing but "the best San Marzano" imported tomatoes as his sauce. I could tell. By the end of the meal our lips were burning. For some really sweet tomatoes, think Heirloom...
Growing Your Own Heirloom Tomatoes
It's fairly easy to grow tomatoes from seed, but a simpler way to get started growing the amazing variety of tastes is to buy heirloom plants in the spring at your local nurseries. Stay away from anything labeled "hybrid". You cannot save seeds from a hybrid tomato--it won't look anything like the mother fruit you took the seed from. Many garden centers nowadays offer Heirloom varieties that you can plant and get a head start on, with the benefit of saving seeds from your biggest and best tasting fruits so you can continue to grow them again year after year. Growing heirloom tomatoes can become part of your family heritage.
If you purchase young heirloom plants, buy and plant them just after the danger of frost in your location. Here's a LINK to help you find out the best time for planting based on your zip code in the U.S..
Now, how to plant... First, make sure you are planting in ground that is tilled nice and fluffy. Make sure you have amended it with some nice organics... I like a mix of peat moss (to hold moisture) and compost from my own compost pile. You can buy compost to use. Stay away from fresh manures... they will burn the plants. You can use any number of organic or non-organic plant foods that have chemicals balanced for growing vegetables that grow fruits.
As for planting, here's a great tip. Tomatoes will grow roots all along their stems if you let them. With young seedlings, pull off the lower leaves and plant deeply. If I have 12" tall plants, I'll plant them with about 2/3 under ground. This gives them a better start--allowing more roots to grow which will supply more nutrients to your plants--and fruits.
I grow my tomatoes upwards onto "quad-pods"--sort of like a four legged tripod. You can make them out of wood or bamboo. As the plants grow, trip off side suckers that grow in the crotch of some leaf joints and tie off the plants to your supports. I plant one tomato plant per corner of my quad-pods.
With heirlooms, you can try yellow, purple, black, pink, red or even striped varieties. My best all around tasting tomato is called Eva Purple ball--a 3" pink, perfect, pest free tomato. My best beefsteak for taste is Giant Belgium. And I love growing Olivette Juane (a prolific yellow pear shape) and Jersey Devil (a horned, chili pepper shaped sauce tomato). Harvest in the mornings for best flavor. As your fruits come close to ripeness, hold back a bit on watering so you don't dilute the flavors.
With heirlooms, label them carefully if you plan to save seeds. Save seeds from your biggest, most blemish free fruits... their genetics will ensure you get a good strain of seeds for next year. Put the seeds in a plastic cup with water and label the cup as to variety, weight of fruit and any other notes about how they performed in your garden (robust plants, bountiful harvest, pest resistant, blight resistant, etc). Place a damp paper towel scrap over the top of the cup and set aside for 1 week. The seeds will ferment and all the smile will be removed from the seeds. After a week or so, rise the seeds carefully, replacing with clean water as you go, until there are only clean seeds in the cup. Remove the seeds from the water and place into labeled coffee filters and set somewhere to dry. Package in paper coin envelopes with their names and notes.
You can start your seeds next season about 6-8 weeks before your last frost, indoors, under artificial lights in seed starting trays and pots. I tend to use two sizes during seed starting... a small seed "pack" size pot made out of peat or compressed paper products... and then I transplant deeper into 4" plastic pots. I set them outside in a protected area to "harden off" to temperature and wind before planting them in my garden beds.
I hope this gives you a better insight on the long, special voyage the Tomato has made... from the Andes mountains, across the sea to Spain, Italy and the rest of Europe, then back to the United States with the influx of Italian Immigrants. The tomato is alive and well all over the world, but especially in Italy. They've adopted this little nightshade fruit and made it their own...
Annies Heirloom Seeds
Growing Heirloom Tomatoes in Pots
Old House Journal Article: How to Grow Heirloom Tomatoes
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