As May rolled around my thoughts turned to planting tomatoes. As usual, I seeded my tomato plants in my greenhouse in March, and introuduced them to my coldframe in April. On March 2, I awoke to the perfect planting day. It was a warm, overcast day with night temperatures predicted to be about 8 degrees. I jumped at the chance to get my tomato plants into the ground.
In my mind, tomatoes, basilico and mozarella cheese are the perfect trifecta and reminiscent of the colours on Italian flag. 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 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. Columbus and other explorers introduced the tomato to Europe in the 1500s.
The first time the pomi d'oro is mentioned by name in Italy was in 1548 in Tuscany. Italians learned 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.
There is a strong competition for bragging rights on the best tomato. For many, the San Marzano is at the top of the list. Last year’s heat wave, and the resuting poor set of tomato blossoms, may have some people convinced this may not be so.
The San Marzano region became synonomous for the go-to canning tomato over 120 years ago, and is still the primary tomato used in canned tomatoes--and even for the production of sun dried tomatoes. 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.
Cultivating and processing tomatoes is possible in many areas in Italy, but three regions account for almost 90% of production: Puglia, with more than 50%; Emilia-Romagna, with 30% and Campania, with about 8%.
Inside a mature green tomato, two growth hormones change and cause the production of ethylene gas, which in turn turns it into a red shade. Because of this process, tomatoes are one of the only vegetables, or fruits that can be picked before they’re completely ripe. There are a multitude of ways to prepare tomatoes: from dried to roasted, to stewed, canned or even frozen; as many ways as there are tomato varieties! Sun drying tomatoes and storing them in olive oil is also a proven way to preserve large stores of tomatoes.
Perhaps the most exciting time for an Italian tomato connoisseur is the fall harvest and the preparation of the winter’s supply of tomato sauce. Many people now make this ritual a family affair, with an aura of festivity, food and wine. Although I still make my own tomato sauce, I only gow a dozen or so plants… just enough to give me a summer and fall supply. I rely on our local produce stands to supply my winter preserves.
Italian Feelings, food and taste Blog, Oct 2, 2017
How the Tomato Became Part of Italian Culture, May 3, 2016
Life-long Gardener Don Rampone shares his tips and advice for gardening