When the northern Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic in 1492, he didn’t expect to change the everyday eating habits of most people on this planet. Without realising it he unleashed a great biological exchange. Europe gave the Americas horses, pigs, cattle and guns, as well as coffee and sugar, while the Americas gave the rest of the world tobacco, peanuts, turkeys, squash, cocoa and guinea pigs. This trafficking of alien resources altered people’s lives at the most basic levels, and perhaps its most positive effect was to offer new tastes and sensations. Imagine the Irish without spuds, the Swiss without chocolate, Thailand without chillies?
What about a Mediterranean world without tomatoes? No Greek salads, no soffritto, no Tomatina festivals in Buñol. No tomatoes in tabbouleh, paella, bouillabaisse or tagines. Perhaps the hardest absence to imagine is Italy without its “golden apple”, the pomodoro. John Dickie, author of Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, aptly described tomato sauce in his 2007 book as more recognisably Italian than the leaning tower of Pisa; the life-blood of not just Italian food but of the Italians themselves. And yet Julius Caesar, Dante, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, every Pope before Alexander VI, and indeed Columbus himself had never heard of it. At the time, the tomato had as much to do with Italy as soy sauce and wasabi, and yet the Roma and other varieties were to become as quintessentially Italian as pasta, basil and olive oil.
The tomato, in fact, is native to Mexico, the area where it was first domesticated. Its name in Nahuatl, one of the local Mexican languages, was tomatl. It was eaten raw and cooked, and it featured in many types of dishes, including the odd prisoner-of-war recipe. In his famous report on the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, soldier Bernal Diaz del Castillo recalled passing through a place called Cholula, where the locals threatened to kill the intruders and prepare them in boiling pots of “chile peppers, tomatoes and salt”.
The tomato was one of a number of American imports that the Europeans took a long time to embrace. It was, after all, as exotic as the Mayan calendar, and its taste and texture seemed altogether weird. Botanists speculated about its medicinal powers and some thought it might be a cure for scabies, but in much of Europe there was some reluctance to recommend it for regular eating, and so in the 16th and 17th centuries the tomato was largely grown as a curiosity, to be looked at rather than consumed. Its voluptuous shape was pleasing and it served as a prop in paintings by European masters and dilettantes, who referred to the fruit as poma amoris, or love apple, fuelling speculation over its supposedly aphrodisiac qualities. In 1583, Tuscan botanist Andrea Cesalpino wrote that if one must eat it, thorough boiling or roasting was recommended, and in 1731, Hermannus Boerhaave wrote that tomatoes were poisonous because their seeds “upset the stomach and cause faintness and a sort of apoplexy”.
This view wasn’t held across all of Europe, however, and in these early years the tomato did take off in Spain. But it was in 17th century Naples, which happened to be under Spanish rule, that the tomato began to permeate local food as a sauce, and from where its culinary conquest of the world can be traced. The first reference to tomato sauce is recorded in a 1692 cookbook by Antonio Latini – a minister to the Spanish viceroy and a Neapolitan by adoption – who referred to it as “salsa di pomodoro alla Spagnuola” (Spanish-styled tomato sauce). Latini’s book gave three tomato recipes: one for a tomato sauce condiment; one that combined tomatoes, squash, eggplant and onions (perhaps this was the predecessor of Provence’s ratatouille and Catalonia’s samfaina); and a tomato and meat stew. Later, in Il Cuoco Galante – another famous Neapolitan cookbook, published by cook and food philosopher Vincenzo Corrado in 1773 – salsa di pomodoro featured in more than a dozen recipes. An early version of the sauce was flavoured by onion, thyme, chilli, vinegar, salt and oil, but given that tomatoes were cheap, Neapolitans of all classes were probably concocting variations of their own.
It is true that the very first recipe combining tomato sauce with pasta appeared in a Roman cookbook (by Francesco Leonardi, one of Europe’s greatest chefs, in 1790), but it’s hard to imagine that the Neapolitans, Italy’s most renowned pasta-eaters and consumers of tomato sauce, had not yet brought the two together. It’s certainly the case that by 1860, the year that Italy became a nation, Naples was acknowledged as the home of tomato pasta sauce. Not long after, in June 1889, Naples also gained fame for its tomato-based pizzas. To honour a visit from the queen consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, the Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito named a pizza garnished with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, ingredients that showcased the colours of the new Italian flag, as the Margherita. The pizza has since become so popular, the European Union in 2010 granted Pizza Napoletana the label “Traditional Speciality Guaranteed”.
Italians have given the world many gifts – Pavarotti, the Colosseum, the Maserati GranCabrio and Versace sunglasses – but the best gift (arguably) has been food. Neapolitan tomato paste and sundried tomatoes have been especially useful because they could be preserved in jars and easily exported throughout Italy and the wider world, and when Neapolitan and other southern Italians emigrated in huge numbers across the Atlantic from the 1890s – and to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s – they brought their tomato-based cuisine with them. It was these Italians who, via the ubiquitous pizzeria and trattoria, and armed with dried pasta and passata, effectively gave the world what is widely recognised as “Italian cuisine”.
ILLUSTRATION ANTONIA PESENTI
This article is from the April 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.