The French call it pomme d’amour’ (love apple), the Italians pomodoro (golden apple), the Aztecs ‘tomatl’, but in English, it is simply tomato.
Botanically, the tomato is a fruit (actually a berry), but for all practical purposes, at least in North America and Europe, cooks use it as a vegetable. This red, sometimes golden-coloured “fruit” belongs to the nightshade family and was for a a long time believed to be poisonous. Although the leaves are indeed poisonous, the delicious tomato is versatile. It can be used in salads, in sauces, as a garnish, fried, grilled, pickled, dried, made to a paste, canned and used as a colouring for pastas. Many South Americans regard it as the most scrumptious of all fruits and eat it with a pinch of salt.
The wild tomato is indigenous to Peru and Ecuador, but the Aztecs and other Central American Indian nations were first to cultivate it. Several strains were developed and even today, researchers develop tomatoes with different characteristics. The most notable, a few years ago, was a strain that contained in its DNA a fish gene to make it more resistant to frost. Mercifully, it never caught on.
When Spanish conquistadors first encountered tomatoes in the beginning of the 16th century (1520s), they found both the taste and textural characteristics of tomato intriguing enough to take the seeds back to Spain. By 1544, southern Italians are said to have been enjoying tomatoes without salt and pepper, and called it ‘pomodoro’. At that time, pepper was a precious commodity, and Italians might have thought the tomato not worth it!
Mediterranean nations, Portuguese, Spaniards and Italians took to the tomato; in other countries, the plant enjoyed an ornamental status. This ignorance lasted for approximately two centuries, fuelled by the physicians of the time who were warning that tomatoes had no nutritional value and caused all kinds of diseases.
Surprisingly, although tomato is indigenous to South America, it reached North American via Europe, and was taken there by the pilgrims. It became popular in 1820 only after Colonel Robert Johnson ate a large quantity of tomatoes in front of thousands of spectators who believed he would die. Today, tomatoes are grown on all continents, and in different sizes. Cooks everywhere use it in one form or another, even in regions too cold to grow this sub-tropical and fragile plant.
North Americans love tomatoes and expect to find it on grocery shelves throughout the year, whereas in most other countries, it is consumed fresh in season. Out of season, people eat pickled tomatoes, sauce, or canned tomatoes prepared in one of many ways. Actually, around the Mediterranean, people rarely use canned foods. There is a natural resistance to canned food, but gradually this aversion seems to be changing, particularly with improved quality of cans that preserve the taste better than those used in the past.
The best sauce tomatoes grow just outside of Naples in San Marzano. In fact, pizza sauce was invented there. To an Italian, pizza is a thin dough laced with tomato sauce, onions, basil and mozzarella, and eaten as an appetizer. American-style, thick-crust doughy pizza has been imported to Italy, and seems to be popular with American tourists who flock there by the millions every year.
Once tomato became popular, hybridizers and plant researchers set out to ”improve” it by breeding variations in colour, size, texture, and cold resistance. Today there are thousands of varieties, but only a few have commercial value; the rest go under the collective title of heirloom tomatoes.
Tomatoes are by far the healthiest of the fruits and vegetables with the power to ward off some of the worst known diseases. One of the best-known tomato-eating benefits is its lycopene content. Lycopene is a vital anti-oxidant that helps in the fight against cancerous cell formation as well as other kinds of health complications and diseases.
New research is beginning to indicate that tomatoes may also be used to help prevent lung cancer. Two powerful compounds found in tomatoes – coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid – are thought to block the effects of nitrosamines. These are compounds that not only are formed naturally in the body, but also are the strongest carcinogen in tobacco smoke. By blocking the effects of these nitrosamines, the chances of lung cancer are reduced significantly.
The largest producer of tomatoes in South Africa is ZZ2. ZZ2 is a farming conglomerate operating in Mooketsi, Politsi, Polokwane and Musina in the Limpopo Province, Ceres and Riebeek West in the Western Cape and Langkloof in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.
ZZ2 produces tomatoes, onions, avocados, apples, pears and cattle. Tomatoes are the main crop with in the region of 160 000 tonnes being produced annually. ZZ2 is a world leader in tomato production and large-scale biological farming practices. Natuurboerdery® is the name given by ZZ2 to this agricultural approach.
Tomato varietals produced by ZZ2:
Long Shelf Life (LSL) tomatoes which are the normal round tomatoes used for salads and cooking. These sweet tomatoes with a hint of acidity are the tomatoes that are the staple food of the nation.
Roma tomatoes, also known as saladette or jam tomatoes, are great for sauces, being a little bit fleshier than the LSL tomatoes. ZZ2 has branded these tomatoes their “Italian Roma tomatoes”.
Cocktails – ZZ2’s flagship here is the Romanita. It is a sweet, crunchy mini plum tomato with an incredible shelf life. ZZ2 also grows Santé type tomatoes which are smaller than the Romanita and have been called ZZ2’s “Spanish Santé”.
Portrait of the Tomato – Catherine Quévremont