IberiaNature A guide to the natural history of Spain
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Tomatoes in Spain / Spanish tomatoes

By Francis Barrett Tomatoes are the biggest vegetable crop, and the single most eaten foodstuff in Spain. However, Spain is not even in the top 5 tomato producers in the world, which are, in order, the U.S.A,, China, India, Turkey and Italy.

Annual consumption of fresh tomatoes in this country is almost 40 kg per capita, believed to be amongst the highest in the world Tinned tomatoes are used a lot for cooking, and tomato juice is quite popular as a first course or as a drink. Tomatoes feature in a huge range of sauces. Tomato ketchup is sneered at, but usually available for guirris / tourists to spoil their food with. Tinned beans in tomato sauce are unheard of, and I have never seen tomato paste or purée on sale here.

Apart from being rubbed on bread (with or without garlic)

It is well known that the tomato originated in the western part of South America, but the riddle that has kept some botanists on edge for many years is where and when the wild tomato became domesticated. Most evidence supports Central American domestication. The Pre-Columbian cultures in Peru were inclined to decorate pottery with depictions of crops and figures important in their everyday lives, and no depictions of tomatoes have yet been found on any artifacts. There is some evidence that indigenous people in Mexico habitually mixed tomatoes with salt and chile peppers, the ancestor of modern Mexican salsa. The conquistadores found tomatoes being cultivated in 1521, when Cortez conquered the Aztec city of Tenochtitl, since renamed Mexico City. So it would seem that, an unidentified wild ancestor of the tomato made its way several thousand years ago from Peru to Central America, although how this happened is not well understood.

The first tomatoes to reach the Old World were probably the small-fruited and rough-skinned yellow variety cultivated by the Aztecs, quickly labelled by Catalan speakers as poma de moro, or Moorish apple. This name became poma d'oro or golden apple in Italian, and pomme d'amour or love apple in French. Red tomatoes were introduced to Europe many years later, under their indiginous Mexican name of tomati, related to the Aztec xitomatl. The earliest mention of the tomato in European literature is found in a herbal written in 1544 by Matthiolus, who reports that they were "eaten in Italy with oil, salt and pepper". Cultivation became widespread in the ensuing decades in Spain, Italy, and southern France. Northern Europeans regarded the tomato with deep suspicion. An Englishman writing in 1596 described it as a "rank and stinking" fruit "eaten by foreigners". Germans noticed the resemblance of the tomato plant to deadly nightshade, known to be highly poisonous, and used as a sour ce of belladona, a few drops of which ladies used to put in their eyes to dilate their pupils, which was the "in" look at the time. Belladona is highly hallucogenic, so the beautiful ladies had very bizarre dreams, and deadly nightshade was associated with the supposed practice of witches of conjuring werewolves, or lycanthropy. The great botanist Carl Linnaeus had this in mind when he gave the tomato its modern scientific name, Lycopersicon esculentum, which literally means "edible wolf peach".

English colonists brought tomato plants to North America, apparently with a medical application for pustules in mind. In 1781, Thomas Jefferson brought tomatoes to his Virginia plantation and experimented with tomato sauce on his french fries (a visionary). George Washington strongly advocated tomato consumption to his poor neighbours in an effort to improve their woefully vitamin-deficient diets, but with limited success. Although New Orleans cuisine had incorporated the tomato by 1812, suspicion about the fruit remained in the rest of the country. Lingering doubts about the safety of the tomato were set to rest in 1820, when Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson (26) announced that he would eat a bushel of tomatoes in front of the Boston court. According to a contemporary farmers' journal, thousands of eager spectators turned out to watch the poor deluded lunatic eating the poisonous fruits, and were shocked when he lived. Tomatoes grew steadily more popular during the 19th century, but it was not until the arrival of canning that the tomato became as ubiquitous throughout the western world as it is today.

The tomato plant is closely related to the potato plant. Both have poisonous leaves and so-called perfect flowers, i.e. hemaphroditic self-fertilising reproduction systems, with no need for any external source of pollen.

La Tomatina is a famous festive event that takes place every summer in the Valencian town of Buñol. Lorries dump 4000 tonnes of overripe pulpy semi-rotten tomatoes in the town hall plaza, already packed with eager participants, divided intotwo teams. These proceed to hurl the tomatoes at each other in a scarlet orgy of destruction, and great fun is had by all.