I was making spaghetti sauce this past Sunday and as I was pouring in the canned tomatoes it occurred to me that tomatoes are used in an awful lot Italian recipes. Tomatoes aren’t native to Europe. They were unknown in to the rest of the world until explorers brought them back from the New World in the early 1500’s. So what did Italians eat before tomatoes? I decided to look it up and find out.
As it turns out, they ate pretty much what the rest of Mediterranean eats. Olives, pasta (introduced to Europe before 1000AD), different types of polenta (not made with corn, that came from the New World also), beans, onions, anchovies & fish near the shore, and (rarely) pork & wild game inland.
Another questions that comes to mind, and one I don’t have an answer for, is why is Italian cuisine so overrun with tomatoes? I mean it’s very likely that Spain was the first country to import tomatoes. Spanish cuisine does make use of tomatoes, but is not defined by it like Italian cuisine. Let’s take a quick look at the history of the tomato and see if we can come up with an explanation.
The date that the tomato first traveled to Europe is not known. Some believe Columbus may have brought plants back, but many historians believe Cortez brought the first plants back to Europe in 1521. These tomato plants did not looked like our tomatoes today. They were yellow colored and about the size of a cherry tomato. They apparently quickly spread through the Mediterranean, because they appeared in an herbal guide in 1544 by Pietro Andrea Mattoli, an Italian botanist and physician, who called them Pomo d’oro (Golden Apple). He also mention of Italians eating these Golden Apples (with oil, salt & pepper), though many regions of Italy used them for decoration only.
At some point in the 16th century, the more familiar red variety was either developed through selective breeding or brought to Europe from Central/South America. One can assume that the popularity of this new red variety grew throughout the 17th century in the Mediterranean and Italy in particular, but recipes featuring tomatoes did not begin to show up in Italy until the late 17th century. As a side note, the popularity of the tomato spread slower when you move away from the Mediterranean. In fact, tomatoes didn’t take off in America until the mid 19th century (Although Thomas Jefferson grew some tomato plants that he received from Europe in the late 1700’s. Ironic seeing that they are native to the Americas.).
So, the answer as to why Italians love their tomatoes so may come down to nothing more than the weather and soil in Italy is well suited to growing tomatoes. Tomato plants in those conditions give large yields with relatively little work compared to other vegetables. In addition, the savory, meaty taste of the tomato added some pizzazz to the average Italians diet, which formally was made up of a lot grain and beans.