Who hasn’t tasted tomatoes at least once? A very distinctive berry with a smooth coating and watery flesh, known in many parts of the world.

Known as Solanum lycopersicum, it is a soft, fleshy and very colorful edible fruit. Native plant of America already consumed at the time of Aztecs and cultivated even before by Mayas. Originally there were only two known kinds: the real tomato was called xi-tomatl, which differed from the tomatillo, smaller and with a roundish and green-yellow aspect, for only one syllable, in fact called mil-tomatl.

The tomatillo grew in the plantations of maize, main food of Aztec cuisine, and was used in the preparation of many dishes. When in ‘500 Spanish conquistadores arrived in these lands, they did not pay much attention to the different names and they collected the seeds of both tomato types in order to import them in the West with the only name of tomate.

The spreading of tomato and its uses

As soon as it arrived in the Eurasian continent, the tomato did not find great success in the food field because it was believed it was indigestible because of the high concentration of solanine, a substance produced by some plants in order to protect themselves from parasites.

Initially it was used as an ornamental and medicinal plant or for scientific research in botanical gardens. According to botanical nomenclature, tomato was given the name of Lycopersicon, that is fruit of the wolf, in order to underline the deep and initial mistrust towards this new fruit.

In the medical field, tomato has been rediscovered as a great ally for health. It has many properties, useful for contrasting and preventing atherosclerosis, kidney and gallstones, inflammations of the urinary tract, hepatic insufficiency and gout. It guarantees a high intake of vitamins and minerals and it is a valid help against lack of appetite, water retention and constipation, whereas its content of lycopene has an antioxidant and anticancer activity by contrasting the accumulation of free radicals in cells.

Its consumption also helps to regulate blood values of azotemia, albumin, uricemia and cholesterol. In some countries aphrodisiac properties were also associated to this plant, which gave it the name of love fruit, pomme d’amour, love apple and liebesapfel respectively in France, England and Germany. Tomato was in fact used in the preparation of potions and love potions.

A bit of history

The tomato arrived in Italy in the second half of the 1500s. It was in fact one of the first European countries where this fruit arrived, because of the Spanish dominations. It spread in Sicily with the name of pomm d’amuri, which later changed into pummarummi. In Sardinia it was known with the Spanish name of tomate and finally arrived in the regions of Central and Southern Italy where it was called pomo d’oro (golden apple) because of its vivid coloration. In 1548 there are documented evidences of the arrival of tomato in Pisa thanks to Cosimo de’ Medici. He received from his father in law as well as Spanish Viceroy of the Kingdom of Naples a decorative basket of colored tomatoes or pummarole, as they were called in the Neapolitan region. The spreading of tomato in the rest of Italy continued later with longer times. It was only between the ‘700 and the ‘800 that its use in the food industry began and this led to its wide consumption, especially among the people of Southern Italy.

The many varieties of tomato

In Italian cuisine tomato is used in many ways: fresh in salads, on friselle and bruschetta or cooked as the main ingredient of many dishes. It is widely consumed in the form of homemade or industrial preserves (passata, pulp, cherry tomatoes or peeled tomatoes), used to make tasty sauces which are also the base of first courses, main courses and especially the fabulous pizza. Preserved as dried tomatoes seasoned with oil, garlic and aromatic herbs, it is also served at table as a tasty accompaniment.

There are at least 5000 different species of tomatoes which differ for shape, size, color and specific organoleptic characteristics. In Italy the highest production of processing tomatoes is concentrated in the regions of Emilia Romagna, Apulia and Caserta.

As for the cultivation of more valuable table varieties, at national level are produced beefsteak tomato and patataro, whereas the cultivation of datterino is linked to southern regions. Other varieties are autochthonous species cultivated in areas of limited extension. These are the result of a long selection made during many years, often the result of the hybridization of different species. A long process that has led to cultivars with unique characteristics, which have sometimes become slow food presidia, i.e. communities working to preserve them.

Tomatoes in Campania

Noteworthy products of our Campania are the numerous varieties of cherry tomatoes cultivated in different areas of the region and widely appreciated by Italians. Among the excellences of Campania there is the famous pendolino, or Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio DOP as it is locally called. This particular type of tomato has small red fruits having a roundish shape and ending with a particular point, the characteristic lace.

Besides its sweet and strong taste and its scent, piennolo can be kept as a fresh product for a pretty long time. Hence the tradition of tying together more bunches of cherry tomatoes in order to hang them in the kitchen and consume them during winter time as well. Another variety is the yellow pomodorino del piennolo similar to the previous one but with a more delicate and sweetish taste, typical of the areas of Ercolano.

In Salerno, instead, are produced other varieties such as Corbarino tomato, traditionally cultivated in Corbara and on Lattari Mountains, with the typical elongated and oval shape common to another local excellence: the renowned San Marzano DOP tomato. Despite its origin in Salerno, this tomato is also widely cultivated in the areas of Avellino and Naples. Its fleshy pulp and peculiar consistency makes it suitable both for fresh consumption, used in salads, and for the preparation of homemade and industrial sauces.

Tomato in Northern Italy

Besides Campania, tomato is grown in different areas in the rest of Italy. Starting from the North we remember Liguria for the production of the best quality of beefsteak tomato. A ribbed salad tomato of remarkable size, a single fruit can in fact reach even 500 g at harvest time, also cultivated in other areas of the national territory such as Tuscany, Sicily and Sardinia. In Piedmont, instead, is renowned the Chivasso ribbed tomato, typical fruit having a slightly flattened and segmented shape, produced in the homonymous comune both outdoors in warmer periods and in greenhouses in winter.

Tomato between Tuscany and Latium

In Tuscany we find Pomodorino da serbo del Valdarno, similar to piennolo vesuviano but with a rounder shape and a more acidic taste. Similar product but without the pointed shape is the Tuscan cherry tomato also called pallino, because of its peculiar spherical shape and small size.

In the region of Latium, precisely in the areas of Gaeta and Formia, is cultivated the Spagnoletta variety. With a ribbed aspect, it is consumed as a fresh product both when it reaches full ripeness and has a beautiful bright red color, and during the previous stage, when it still has some green shades.

Tomato in the South

Tomato is a typical product of summer and of milder temperatures. Usually it is also available in winter but with a more delicate taste, because it is cultivated in greenhouses, this does not apply to the surprising yellow winter tomato typical of Molise but also cultivated in Apulia. Called pmdor di viern da append, a dialectal expression which means winter tomato to be hung, they are small tomatoes having a typical yellow or orange color which can be kept for the whole winter period, either in bunches or arranged in boxes.

In Apulia, instead, are cultivated many other varieties which are part of slow food presidia. One of these is the Manduria tomato, or pomodoro manduriano. It is an oval shaped fruit, of small size and red color, which is mainly consumed fresh in salads, but it is also suitable for the preparation of sauces.

In the province of Brindisi is cultivated the Tomato Fiaschetto of Torre Guaceto which represents a small local production, mostly destined to a limited consumption. With this typical Apulian tomato are also prepared excellent and very tasty purees.

Always in the Brindisi zones, we also have the variety “da serbo” called Regina di Torre Canne, with a particular sapid taste conferred by the closeness of the sea to the land where it is cultivated. In Calabria is famous the great Belmonte Tomato. So much notoriety does not only derive from the peculiar size of its fruits, a single tomato can get to think even 1 kilogram at harvest, but also from the consistency of the pulp and the pink color. It is mainly consumed raw.

Tomato in Sicily and Sardinia

Everyone, at least once, has heard of Pachino di Sicilia tomato. With this denomination, however, are indicated different varieties of tomatoes cultivated in the homonymous Sicilian comune, all PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). They are ribbed or smooth cherry tomatoes in clusters and roundish, with unique organoleptic characteristics. Another excellence of the territory, is the tomato Faino di Licata, with a rounded and slightly elongated shape and small size. Main characteristic besides the bright red color is the high content of mineral salts.

Finally we have the Siccagno, also called pizzutello of Paceco or of the Ericine valleys. Niche product belonging to the slow food presidia with a strong aromatic flavor that makes it ideal for fresh consumption but it is also used for the production of concentrates and preserves. From Sardinia, instead, has spread all over the country, the particular tomato Camone. It has a medium size and a roundish shape, while the color goes from green to red-orange, mainly destined for fresh consumption.

Legends connected to tomato

Spread since ancient times, tomato has given life to many legends. The first one we are mentioning is originated by the writer Matilde Serao and is about the invention of the worldwide symbol of Italian cooking: pasta al pomodoro (pasta with tomato sauce). It is said that during the reign of Frederick II lived in Naples a powerful magician capable of preparing mysterious magic potions.

The magician acted in great secrecy, intriguing the people thanks to his skills. One day, however, a woman managed to peek at the magician and get hold of the amazing recipe. The magician, in fact, was none other than a great cook who had invented pasta with tomato sauce.

Other legends set in Naples concern the Piennolo del Vesuvio tomato. It seems, in fact, that the tradition of gathering together the various bunches of Vesuvian tomatoes is derived from an ancient custom of the women of Torre del Greco. These women, who have always been expert menders and weavers of fishing nets, trained themselves to weave anything they could find. So, one day, seeing the long bunches of cherry tomatoes, they could not resist the temptation to weave them, giving them the typical and traditional aspect that still characterizes them today.

It is also said that the tomato arrived in Naples as a gift that the Viceroy of Peru gave to King Ferdinand IV for his coronation. The king liked the gesture so much that he decided to cultivate the plant on the Vesuvius. Here the plants produced small and fragrant fruits with a unique flavor, which were immediately appreciated by everyone. This is how the Piennolo tomato was born.

Another legend, instead, is related to the ancient belief according to which tomato had aphrodisiac properties. One day, a young boy, madly in love with his servant, decided to remedy this unrequited love. He ran to the garden to pick some tomatoes and set to work to create the greatest love potion. He crushed the fruit and mixed it with a few other ingredients until he obtained the great tomato sauce. He then went to the girl and gave her a taste of the dish. Seeing a growing enthusiasm from her, the young man tried to grab her but immediately the girl defended herself by abruptly hitting him with the pan and running away.

The young man, left alone, could do nothing but taste what remained of the sauce. He was immediately pervaded by a sense of well-being and joy. So it was that the pommes d’amour sauce became a tasty dish that put everyone in a good mood.