The long spicy history of the tomato

The tomato is indispensable in European cuisine.
The tomato is indispensable in European cuisine. / R.C.
  • The Aztecs introduced the conquistadores to many new foods such as maize, chocolate, turkey, peppers, vanilla, pineapple and the tomato

  • The Spaniards brought the strange new fruit from the New World to Europe

The season for the mainstay of the Mediterranean diet, the tomato, is nearly here and it's hard to believe that just 500 years ago it was unknown.

Dishes that we consider as Spanish, such as gazpacho or pisto, did not have tomatoes or peppers back then. There were no tomato salads or cod in tomato sauce either, and the Italians did not even have the faintest idea that their gastronomy would become world famous thanks to the pasta with tomato. The tomato, or Solanum lycopersicum, would not be discovered by the European palate until the year 1519, during the conquest of Mexico in the unknown territories of the New World.

Among the many foods that the Spaniards got to know thanks to the Aztecs (maize, chocolate, turkey, pepper, vanilla, pineapple, avocado ...)one stood out. The natives used it to temper the chili in sauces and stews, the tomátl. Originally from the Andean coast, it had been domesticated in Mesoamerica for five thousand years, giving rise to different varieties that were identified with different prefixes on the root tomatl (fat fruit): xaltomatl, izhoatomatl, miltomatl, xitomatl in the Náuhatl language . Of these, the most appreciated were the miltomatl or tomatillo verde and the red xitomatl (navel tomato), which was sweeter and fleshier. Both types were used by the Aztecs to reduce the hotness of the chili in tamales, moles and sauces.

With so many different tomátls the Spaniards became confused and ended up calling all of them 'pomate' or 'tomato', a word that Sahagún used for the first time in the mid-sixteenth century to describe the juicy fruits that could be green, yellow or red.

Francisco Hernández de Toledo, a physician and botanist from Toledo who directed the first scientific exploration of the New World between 1571 and 1577, also wrote of having tasted the tomato. In his book 'Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae Thesaurus', a posthumous work partially published in 1648, he indicated that tomatoes crushed with chili made a very good sauce (intinctus gratissimus), which enhanced the taste of almost all other dishes and aroused the appetite.

It is believed that the tomato moved from Tenochtitlan to Spain very quickly, although more as a botanical curiosity than anything else. The yellow variety was taken to Italy, which is why naturalist Pietro Andrea Mattioli baptised tomatoes in 1544 as 'pomi d'oro' or pomodoro. He was the first to officially confirm tomato consumption in the Old World, indicating that the common people ate it fried in oil, with salt and pepper.

For a long time the tomato was a food for humble people due to the fear it caused in enlightened society. Why? The reason was that it was related to other Solanaceae plants such as belladonna, datura and mandrake, which were toxic and suspected of being used for magic, making poisons and as an aphrodisiac. As had happened with the tomato's distant cousin the potato, the tomato was seen by some as a potentially dangerous food and was therefore avoided as a regular ingredient at grand tables.

In spite of the doubts that people had, the tomato quickly acclimatised to Spanish soil and in 1592 it was already cultivated in the Casa de Campo in Madrid. We know this thanks to Felipe II's botanist, Gregorio de los Ríos, who in his “Agriculture of Gardens” (1592) advised planting “pomates” in March and April as “they say they are good for salsa”.

The Spaniards at first used the tomato in the same way it was used in the New World. Little by little, thanks to the fact that the poorest people made good guinea pigs, it was found that tomatoes were safe to eat. New sweeter varieties also emerged, so the image of that foreign ingredient began to change and become accepted in the diet of the privileged classes.

In 1639 there is talk of the slight indisposition of Queen Isabella of France, wife of Philip IV, due to a possible over eating of tomatoes and throughout the seventeenth century it appears as a common ingredient in salads and other dishes in the poems of Quevedo and Sor Manuela de San Felix.

However it was an Italian who is credited as the author of the first recipe using tomatoes. Antoni Latini (1642-1696) chef to the governor of Naples Esteban Carrillo y Salcedo, included various recipes with tomatoes in his book 'Lo Salco Alla Moderna'. But with due credit to Spain, every single dish in it that uses tomatoes has the suffix 'alla Spagnola'.