the tomato ( Solanum lycopersicum ) is one of the most widely grown vegetables in Italian gardens and is the protagonist of many fundamental dishes of our culinary traditions, such as pizza or pasta with sauce. In short, we cannot do without this vegetable.
One would take for granted that tomatoes have always been known in Italy, but this is not the case. In fact, the plant is of South American origin and did not arrive in Europe until 1500. And Like all migrants in history, the tomato also had a hard time when it arrived , encountering mistrust. In our country, this red vegetable spread between 1700 and 1800, so what we consider the cornerstone of our agriculture was only introduced a few centuries ago. The same happened with other important vegetables, for example potatoes.
The history of the tomato and its origins teaches us that the garden has always been multicultural and open to contamination, which enriches the biodiversity of the countryside and the range of flavors in the kitchen. If you’re curious, let’s try to investigate a little more, finding out something on the history of the tomato .
The origins of the plant
The origin of the name: etymology of the tomato
The arrival of the tomato in Europe
Tomatoes in Italy
The origins of San Marzano tomatoes
The History of Pachino Cherry Tomatoes
The origins of the plant
The tomato plant ( Solanum lycopersicum ) originated in Latin America , was developed safely in tropical climates and especially in the regions that now correspond to the states of Peru and Ecuador, from here it was brought to Mexico by the Mayans and then widely used by the Aztecs. It seems that they were already producing tomato sauce, to which they attributed great virtues, among other things also an aphrodisiac power. The original tomatoes were certainly not those that we find today in our gardens: we savor the fruits of a long selection, carried out over the centuries by farmers from different eras, starting with the Aztecs . In addition, climatic differences have also contributed to the transformation.
The first wild tomato was yellowish and not red, no doubt it will have been characterized by smaller and fewer fruits, certainly not like today’s varieties which are so loaded with fruit that they require guards to support the branches . It will not even have produced regular clusters as in the case of cherry tomatoes, which were the result of laboratory selections carried out by a seed company in Israel.
Origin of the name: etymology of the tomato
When researching the history of the vegetable, it is instructive to consider the etymology and research what names have been given to it and where these terms come from.
We start with the scientific name “ Solanum lycopersicum» . The first part ” solanium is the indication of the genus: in fact tomatoes are solanaceous plants, returning to the sense solanium means “to calm” or “to heal” and refers to medicinal properties previously attributed to plants of this species. What is curious is that the attribute lycopersium which identifies the tomato, has the opposite meaning. Literally means “wolf fishing” (from Lycos Yes perch ): being considered harmful, it was deemed good to feed it to wolves. From this name we can also know which are the two particular substances that the fruit contains: solanine and lycopene . However, these are the substances that take their name from the plant and not the other way around.
The current term is easy to understand: just break the word “tomato” into ” Golden Apple “. tomatoes to they were originally yellow and have kept the flattering comparison with gold at least in name, though varietal selections over the centuries have turned the vegetables red. It’s not the only vegetable that has drastically changed color: carrots were originally purple. The reference to the beauty of the fruit is not accidental, it is a name invented in France in the 18th century, when the tomato was kept as an ornamental species.
Finally, the English name » tomato » and analog » tomato “ also used in French, Spanish and Portuguese are all words that come directly from the first name of the plant: “xitomatl”, in use among the Aztecs. For them, the term tomato indicated many plants with juicy, water-rich fruits, while xi-tomatl was actually our solanum licopersicum.
The arrival of the tomato in Europe
The landing of tomatoes on the old continent took place in 1540 in Spain , for Cortés, famous explorer. In the eyes of Europeans, the plant that arrived from America resembled an already known and poisonous species, the solanum nigrum (morel herb). It was believed by association that the tomato was also inedible. It was probably not just a matter of ignorance: in the past, tomatoes could have a higher solanine content, so the fruit, if not toxic, is difficult to digest. The plant was later improved, for quality and also for aesthetics, as early as 1572 we find red tomatoes mentioned.
Although little appreciated from a culinary point of view, tomatoes they were popularized for ornamental purposes : exposing exotic plants was a spectacle for the nobles, especially in France where the vegetable was planted in the park of the Palace of Versailles to the pride of the Sun King.
Until 1700, general mistrust prevented vegetables from spreading. The famines of 1800 were a strong incentive looking for new foods and this made it possible to discover the nutritional richness of the tomato.
Tomatoes in Italy
The tomato landed in Italy shortly after arriving in Spain, since the Spaniards had possessions in our country and maintained excellent relations with the various lordships and the Bourbon Empire. The arrival in Florence of a basket of tomatoes at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent is dated to 1548. However, in Italy too, the tomato experienced a long period of mistrust. Being a country divided into duchies and lordships, new vegetables arrived here and there, unevenly, not reaching all regions.
Our climate is favorable to this crop, so we have been quicker to assimilate the tomato into our cuisine than other European countries. In southern Italy, the first culinary experiences began relatively early especially in Sicily and Campania . A strong impetus to the distribution of the tomato was Garibaldi’s Thousand Company which crossed all of Italy, spreading interest in tomatoes also in the north.
The history of tomatoes in Italy is a story made up of many small local stories , it is curious to go into the origins of some famous tomato varieties. It is not easy and there is often no evidence to trace the exact origin of a particular cultivar, some tomatoes, such as beef hearts, have been grown in different places and it is not possible to reconstruct their genealogy. Below, I’ll tell you where two varieties come from: one is very old, while the other is significantly newer.
The origin of San Marzano tomatoes
The San Marzano variety is certainly one of the most famous types of tomato sauce, it comes from a small village in Campania, San Marzano sul Sarno, where it was first planted. It is said that the seed was a gift that came directly from the Viceroy of Peru in 1770, intended for the Kingdom of Naples.
The original cultivar of San Marzano died out, cut by viral diseases, today some varieties resist, which retain part of their genetic heritage and are authorized for the production of PDO tomatoes. However, it is a type of tomato with very old roots, although it has certainly evolved and transformed over the centuries. Who knows how many differences there are between Aztec tomato sauce and today’s San Marzano sauce.
The story of Pachino’s cherry tomatoes
If the San Marzano is an ancient cultivar, transmitted since before 1800, on the other hand, the Pachino cherry tomatoes were born much more recently and are varieties developed in the laboratory.
Pachino is a Sicilian town, with a particularly attractive climate for tomato plants, here in 1989 an Israeli seed company brought new varieties called Noemi and Rita, which included small tomatoes, in the case of the Rita cluster. It is precisely from the Israeli Rita variety that the famous Pachino cherry tomato comes. Cherry tomato is one of the most popular tomato varieties today.