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Wherever you are from, it is probable that you eat tomatoes in one form or another. Tomatoes originated in South America but are now found all over the world. Without tomatoes we would have no cheese and tomato pizza; no ketchup; no baked beans on toast; no lasagne or spaghetti Bolognese; no tomato soup; no BLTs; no mozzarella, tomato, and basil salad; no tomato gazpacho; no tuna nicoise; no salsa; and no tomatoes with our fried breakfast--or any of the other hundreds of dishes that use this savoury fruit. (Although often thought of as a vegetable, tomatoes are technically a fruit. They contain the seeds from which new tomatoes plants will grow.)
Tomatoes are thought to have first grown in western South America, in the region of modern day Peru and Ecuador. Wild species are still found in these areas as well as farther south in Chile and Bolivia. Tomato plants are found in all sorts of environments from the deserts and dry valleys on the Western slopes of the Andes to fog-saturated cloud forests and even above the snowline on the Andean mountains. However, most wild species prefer dry conditions.
Very varied in size, colour, and appearance, most wild tomatoes don’t look anything like those you would buy in a shop. They are usually about a centimetre across, green in colour, and covered with fur. What’s more, their taste can be distinctly bitter and unpleasant. Which of these wild tomatoes (if any) gave rise to the modern tomato is not certain, but it probably developed from the species Solanum pimpinellifolium, which looks and tastes most like the tomatoes we are used to.
Domestication of the Tomato
At one decisive moment in the history of the tomato, someone decided to plant and grow tomatoes rather than picking them in the wild. This was the very first tomato farmer and with that move the future of the tomato was changed forever. When or where this first happened we will never know for sure. Some people have guessed tomatoes were first grown in Peru and Ecuador (around where the tomato originated thousands of years ago). This area was home to many complex civilisations, culminating in the Incas, but no evidence has yet been found that any of them farmed tomatoes. Others have suggested that tomatoes were first cultivated by humans in Mexico--around 4000 miles to the north. Certainly by the 1500s, when Europeans first arrived in Mexico, the native peoples had long been growing tomatoes for food.
Wherever it first happened, when people started farming the tomato it would have looked much like it did in the wild. However, each time they picked their tomatoes they could use the seed from the best ones (e.g. the biggest or the sweetest) to sow more tomato plants. By selecting the best tomatoes to grow, they grew plants with better and better tomatoes. This process of changing a wild plant into one that is good for humans is called domestication and it is how wild tomatoes began to change into the tomatoes we eat today.
Spread of the Tomato
Well before the 1500s the tomato plant had already travelled 4000 km north, from its origin in the Andean region of modern day Peru and Ecuador to Mexico. It may have been that tomato plants were deliberately transported north to Mexico by humans or that after eating tomatoes birds or other animals carried the seeds there in their stomachs .
In 1492, Columbus made his first landfall in the New World. This was to change the future of the tomato, as it led to the Spanish exploration and conquest of the Americas, their discovery of the tomato plant, and the eventual spread of the tomato to all four corners of the earth.
The first tomato plants to be taken to Europe probably came from Mexico, the site of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, which was conquered by the Spanish conquistador Cortes in 1519. Here the Spanish discovered the Aztecs eating a domesticated form of the tomato that they referred to as Xitomatl. Bernardino Sahagun, a Franciscan priest who visited Mexico in 1529, wrote that the Aztecs combined tomatoes with chillies and ground squash seeds to make a sauce [or salsa]. Salsa made with tomatoes and chillies is still a popular relish in Mexico and the USA today. To find modern recipes for the tomato, including salsa, click here .
It is likely that tomatoes first arrived in Europe via some Spanish port. However, the first record we have of tomatoes in Europe appears in the 1544 work of an Italian herbalist called Matthioli. The tomato that Matthioli studied was around the size of a fist and a bright yellow colour so he called the tomato “pomi d’ oro”, or “Golden Apple”. The tomato and the name ‘Golden apple’ spread quickly north through Europe. Tomatoes were being cultivated in Germany by 1553, in Holland by 1554, and in France just a few years later, and by 1597 the tomato had crossed the channel and was being grown in England. Tomatoes had also spread rapidly in the other direction and by the beginning of the 1600s the tomato was being cultivated south of the Mediterranean, in Syria, Arabia, Ethiopia, and Egypt. By 1700, Europeans had even taken the tomato as far as China and South and Southeast Asia. The first record of a tomato in North America is from 1710. Thus, from its initial domestication in the Americas, and mainly by the hand of man, the tomato travelled all around the globe in less than 200 years. Since then it has continued to spread and at present the tomato is cultivated from Indonesia to Canada, from Iceland to Cameroon.
Use of the Tomato
The Aztecs grew the tomato for use as food. And, just after its arrival in Europe, in 1544, the Italian herbalist Matthioli noted that it was eaten in Italy, like mushrooms, fried and seasoned with salt and pepper. However, the tomato had to jump two main hurdles before it was widely accepted in Europe as a food.
Firstly, there was a common belief that the tomato was poisonous. This is not as strange as it sounds as the tomato had been identified as belonging to the same family of plants as the infamous, and aptly named, Deadly Nightshade. Also, although they are not found in the ripe fruit, the leaves and stem of tomatoes contain chemical compounds known as alkaloids that are in fact toxic to humans.
Secondly, the tomato's smell and taste seems to have put many people off. One French book on plants, published in 1600, described it like this: “This plant is more pleasant to the sight than either to the taste or smell, because the fruit being eaten, povoketh loathing and vomiting.” Whether the tomatoes available in the 1600s really tasted that bad or whether the European palate just wasn’t used to the taste is difficult to know.
By the 1600s, although it was not commonly eaten people had started to call the tomato ‘love apple’, which inspired, or was inspired by, the tomato's reputation in some quarters as an aphrodisiac, eaten to boost sexual desire. While it is safe to assume that most people did not view tomatoes as an aid to romance, they were still considered a great novelty and it was fashionable in many countries to grow them as ornamental plants – just as we might grow roses today. In fact, the first major use of tomatoes in Europe was not as food, but as a decorative plant for the gardens of the wealthy.
Gradually the tomato began to gain acceptance as food and by the beginning of the 1800s was widely eaten across Europe. It took a little longer (until the 1830s/40s) for it to become popular in North America, but soon the continent was held in the grip of a ‘tomato mania’ and there are reports of whole dinners themed around this humble fruit.
Soon after the tomato had become popular eating, people started to use it for making drinks. These included tomato wine, tomato beer, tomato whiskey, and even tomato champagne! Today we don’t drink much tomato bubbly, but the tomato is still famous for its use in the gruesome sounding cocktail: a ‘Bloody Mary’. (The Bloody Mary is a cocktail made with tomato juice and named after Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary of England who was famous for burning large numbers of Protestants at the stake. For tomato recipes, including this cocktail, click here.)
At various times in its history, both before and after its general acceptance as a food, the tomato was used in medicine. One of its most enthusiastic (if not reliable) fans was the Englishman William Salmon. In 1710 he suggested using tomatoes to treat burns, itching, ulcers, running sores, back pain, headaches, gout, sciatica, and the intriguingly named ‘fits of mother’. Interestingly, tomatoes are regarded today as beneficial for our health, if not in quite the same ways suggested by William Salmon. With our modern understanding of vitamins and compounds such as antioxidants, the tomato has become valued not only as a delicious food but also as a valuable part of a healthy diet.
How the Tomato has Changed
Wild tomatoes are small and often green, hairy, and bitter tasting. Not very appetising and a far cry from the tomatoes we would buy in the shops. But by the time the tomato had reached Europe (in the 1500s) it had already been domesticated by Native Americans. In fact, it seems they had bred tomatoes of all sizes, shapes and colours. The first tomato to be described in Europe was large, ribbed on the outside and yellow in colour. However soon other types of tomatoes appear in the records, including ones that were small and round like our cherry tomatoes.
Tomatoes changed little in the next 200 years. Then, as their popularity as a food increased, they became an important commercial crop. Suddenly it was in the interest of farmers to improve tomato plants. At first farmers concentrated on breeding plants with better yield (how much tomato fruit could be grown on a plant) and appearance. The plants became more productive and tomatoes became rounder, smoother and mostly red in colour. The number of varieties (each suited to different climates and tastes) available increased rapidly in this first burst of tomato breeding. As demand increased, it became clear that tomatoes would sell all year round. This was a problem for countries where tomatoes would only grow in the summer. Attempts were made to breed tomatoes that would produce fruit earlier in the year, but the best solution appeared to be to transport tomatoes from warmer areas where the plants would fruit all year. To do this, the tomatoes had to be made tougher so they could survive transport without damage. This meant breeding tomatoes with thicker skins that are less prone to splitting and breeding firmer tomatoes that are less likely to burst or bruise. Producing tomatoes of a regular size and shape also became important as this allowed efficient packing of the tomatoes for their journey. Increasing firmness has also increased the ease of tomato picking. To aid tomato picking further, plants that produce and ripen all their fruit at the same time and tomatoes that separate easily from their stalks have also been bred. These developments have decreased the cost of picking tomatoes and have paved the way for picking by machines.
One of the other great drivers for tomato breeders is disease prevention. Tomato breeders have pitted their wits against the continuously evolving challenge of disease since the very earliest days and it remains one of their greatest challenges. In modern field plantations or greenhouses containing large numbers of very similar tomato plants, disease can spread extremely rapidly.
The first half of the 20th century saw a dramatic development in the approach to farming. Increased availability and use of pesticides and fertilisers changed the demands of all types of farmers. Plants that could take up and benefit from high levels of fertilisers and resist otherwise very effective pesticides were now needed to make the most of modern farming techniques. By the 1980s, tomatoes had become cheaper than ever and were available to the western world 365 days a year. But there was a growing feeling that consumers and producers alike had lost sight of why the tomato was such a desirable crop: its delicious taste. All the attention on breeding these other desirable attributes into tomatoes meant that the flavour, texture, and nutritional value of tomatoes took a back seat. Since then there has been a growing interest in the quality – taste, flavour and nutritional content - of tomatoes.
To find out more about how EU-SOL, a multi-million Euro research project funded by the European Commission focussed on improving the quality of potatoes and tomatoes, aims to produce tomatoes with better flavour texture and nutritional value, click here.
To learn more about the techniques that plant breeders have used to develop the wild tomato into the varied product available today, click here.