Ripe and red, fresh and juicy, small or big, long or round. In all different shapes and sizes, tomatoes are seen in abundance during the sunny season; picked off the vine, poured into markets and finally placed into the baskets of hungry Italians, eagerly awaiting to dish out and tuck into tomato-heavy lunchtime spreads. Italy’s sheer quantity of these sweet and sour culinary delights is enough to tantalise your taste buds, have your eyes out on stalks, and even make you pity the lonesome carrots and rejected runner beans shied behind their mighty mounds at the vegetable stands. Yet the vast quantity of tomatoes has nothing on their scrumptious quality. At your first bite of an Italian summer tomato, matured to sun-kissed perfection, you’ll be on the floor, begging for more.
While no food can conjure up Italian culture and cuisine quite like the tomato, it has surprisingly not always been this way. Believe it or not, Nero, Augustus and the rest of the mad and mighty Imperial leaders were fine-dining on tomato-less banquets, and the Roman gladiators didn’t have access either to the fruit’s extraordinarily high vitamin C content to nourish them for their fearsome fights.
The tomato, in fact, arrived in Italy more than a millennium after the fall of the Empire, when the Spanish conquistadors brought the plant over to Europe from South America in the early 16th century. But despite its fame in almost every dish Italians eat and love today, their ancestors were at first sceptical of the juicy intruder. Classified as a mandrake and close relative of the deadly nightshade in 1544 by the Italian botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli, the tomato was deemed dangerous and even poisonous: a forbidden fruit, used for decorative purposes, and eaten only with caution and care. (The skins and seeds, considered the most toxic parts, had to be precisely removed from the fruit.) Wary yet much enamoured by the tomato’s exotic beauty, the supposed aphrodisiac qualities it bore and the tomato’s radiant colouring (the first varieties were yellower in hue), Mattioli dubbed the fruit “pomo d’oro”–golden apple. The name persists today. Yes, you may say toMAYto, and I may say toMAHto, but for Italians it’s a much catchier pomodoro; we have Mattioli to thank for that.
Trepidation for tomato eating in Italy had greatly diminished by the late 17th century, especially amongst the working class. The “poisonous” tomato was killing off the rich, while leaving the poor unharmed. Although we could pin this to a plot worthy of Robin Hood and his merry men, the true explanation was not the doing of any heroic outlaw or of any tomato for that matter. The aristocrats of the time were dining on pewter plates, which, when touched by the tomato’s highly acidic juices, allowed the lead to leach out. Working men and women ate from wooden boards–rustic, reliable and poison free!
Entering the 19th century, the pomodoro craze was in full bloom. “[The tomato] is cultivated in all markets and kitchen gardens,” wrote Ottaviano Tozzetti in Botanical Institutions 1813, declaring the fruit “very common”. Tomatoes were being grown up and down the boot-shaped peninsula, as the Mediterranean climate proved to be the perfect habitat for the colourful crop. The Sardinians were sun drying theirs, before grounding them down as spice. Meanwhile the country folk of Parma preserved tomatoes in cans and bottles as pulps and purees, and the peasants of southern Italy relied on little else as sustenance during the dry dog days of summer. In 1837, culinary magic was performed (or at least recorded for the first time) by the chef Ippolito Cavalcanti, who paired pasta and pomodoro together–a match made in Naples (or arguably heaven). Fifty years later and the tomato had gained royal approval. Queen Margherita of Savoy delighted in a Neapolitan invention: basil, mozzarella and tomato passata laden on dough. Fit for a queen, and for all, the Pizza Margherita was born.
The present day sees Italy produce a staggering five million tonnes of tomatoes a year, with Italians consuming 60 kg per head per year. There are over 300 different species grown throughout the country, and as a book alone would not suffice to detail their various sizes, shapes and flavours, I’ll share just three of my favourite Italian species:
San Marzano D.O.P: Long and slightly pointed in shape, these botanical beauties are a variety of the plum tomato with a rich flavour, tender texture and mild acidity. Italy’s pride and joy and the most requested tomato world-wide, San Marzano are grown between Naples and Salerno with no-nonsense D.O.P status. The only tomato used for vera pizza napoletana, they are also mandatory for ragu.
Cuore di Bue: Named for their meaty taste and mammoth size, the “Oxheart” tomato weighs, on average, 300g. Cuore di Bue are the ideal salad tomatoes: chop them up with basil, buffalo mozzarella, a splash of oil, a sprinkle of salt and voilà, your Caprese is served.
Datterini: Meaning “little dates” in Italian because of their exceptionally sweet taste and small size, datterini are grown in clumps of up to a dozen at a time and are available in both red and yellow varieties. With thicker skins, fewer seeds and more flesh than other tomatoes, they are perfect for sauces, salads or simply eaten right off the vine as your go-to summer candy.
Hungry and for one thing only, I’m off for an Aperitivo, hoping for bruschette heaped high with plump pomodori, washed down with cold white wine and enjoyed with sun-loving, tomato-tone tanned Italian friends.