Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers. as I was walking along a road in Muswell Hill last week, I nearly tripped over my own feet in surprise (when said appendages are a size 8, this isn’t hard to do). There was a tomato plant growing out of the wall. And by the lamp post opposite, there was another one.
So, today I popped back to take some photos. A black-clad waiter was rolling a cigarette and watching with some interest.
‘It’s a tomato’, he said helpfully.
‘But how did it get here?’ I pondered aloud. ‘Did someone drop a kebab and the tomato seeds from the garnish took root?’
He took a puff.
‘The vegetable wholesaler stops here to deliver to the restaurants’, he said, ‘And sometimes he just leaves trays of stuff here, especially if it’s gone bad’.
Aha. Mystery (probably) solved.
When I started the Wednesday Weed, I suspected that I might sometimes find herbs – a stray mint plant, or a rogue rosemary, or a tenacious thyme. But I had no idea that I’d be finding vegetables (though technically, as any schoolchild will tell you, the tomato is a fruit). Still, this is an opportunity not to be missed, for sure.
As you can tell from the flowers, tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) are members of the Solanaceae, or nightshade family. There are several wild solanums in the UK, including bittersweet and, of course, deadly nightshade. However, the family contributes many foodplants, such as the potato (probably my favourite vegetable), the chilli and the sweet pepper.
The tomato itself originated in the Andes, and the name means ‘fat thing with navel’ in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The species name, lycopersicum, means ‘wolf peach’ – it was believed that deadly nightshade could turn humans into werewolves, and so the big, fat, red tomato must have been seen as a super-sized version.
I could not be more delighted with these two facts if I tried.
The Spanish brought the tomato to Europe following their conquest of South America with the first recorded instance being in Italy in 1531. However, tomatoes were initially believed to be poisonous, and so were grown initially as ornamental plants, with the first culinary use not being noted until the seventeenth century. Tomatoes were not popular with the peasant population either, as they were not particularly filling, and I can imagine that the first varieties were sour, unpleasant little things. A few hundred years later, we are tripping over tomato recipes, not only from Italy but also from the rest of Europe, and even the UK has grown to love that old perennial, tomato ketchup.
Incidentally, the Italian name for the tomato, pomodoro, comes from ‘Pomme d’oro’, or ‘apple of gold’ – there is some evidence that the first imported tomatoes were yellow, not red.
Although not a big consumer of tomatoes, China is by far the largest exporter of the plant, exporting 31% of the world total of 171 million tonnes. This is followed by India, and then the US.
The tomato was the first ever genetically modified organism offered for sale, with the ‘Flavr Savr’ variety being offered for sale between 1994 and 1997 in the US. It was designed to have a longer shelf life. Much of the deterioration in flavour and texture of the tomatoes offered for sale now is down to the need to have the fruit ripen uniformly, and this has led to a reduction in the natural sugars that give the fruit its taste. So often these days, the tomatoes look delicious, and taste of exactly nothing. Many of my cookbooks recommend giving tomatoes a miss during the winter months and using tinned ones instead.
I remember the tomatoes that my father grew on his allotment as a very different taste experience. The best way to eat a tomato is fresh off the vine on a day when the sun has warmed the fruit, and concentrated all that lovely flavour. There is also a special smell to a tomato just after the green leaves in the ‘navel’ have been plucked – someone once told me that a Scottish tomato always smells of mint.For the fruit to develop, the flowers need to be pollinated, and herein lies a tale. In their native South America, tomatoes are pollinated by a species of sweat bee, which did not make the crossing to Europe. Fortunately, bumblebees of various kinds took up the challenge. The pollen is in the inside of the pistil, the long structure at the centre of the flowers of tomatoes and other solanums, and the bees learned that they needed to vibrate against this for the plant to release its bounty. This process is known as ‘buzz pollination’ or ‘sonicating’, and I will have more to say about this in my blog on Saturday. In the meantime, if you have any tomato plants that are still in flower, have a listen to the bees when they visit – you can distinctly hear them buzzing away vigorously.
The problem is, what do you do if you want to grow tomatoes, but don’t have any bumblebees? In Australia this is a major problem – there are companies who want to import bumblebees, but if they escape into the ecosystem there is no telling what problems might be caused. There is a trial using native Australian bees, but they will have to work out what to do with the flowers, so only time will tell. In the meantime, across the world, low-paid workers are cross-pollinating tomatoes with the help of a vibrating wand. Of the many jobs that it’s possible to do, this must be one of the strangest, not to mention the most labour intensive, because each individual flower needs to be treated. To see how all this works, have a look at the short film about the Vegibee, a handy garden pollinator aid. No guffawing at the back, please.
It will not surprise you that tomatoes have played a part in regional culture. La Tomatina, a Spanish festival, involves lots of semi-dressed people hurling over a quarter of a million tonnes of tomatoes at one another. And playing draughts with them, if the photo below is to be believed. It seems like a chronic waste of food to me, unless the tomatoes are already past their peak.
As my husband is Canadian, I would also like to celebrate the fact that the tomato is the Official Vegetable (‘Fruit!’ I hear you say) of Ontario, and that 15th July has been designated Tomato Day under the Tomato Act of 2016.
As you might expect, the tomato has featured in many still life paintings, what with its attractive colour and variety of forms. Here is one by Luis Egidio Melendez,painted in the late 1700’s and featuring the aubergine, another member of the Solanaceae family.Here is Van Gogh’s ‘Still Life with Mackerel, Lemons and Tomatoes’ from 1886 and very delicious it looks too.
And here is a take on the fruit by Japanese artist Kanae Yamamoto from 1918.
What each painting seems to emphasize, in its own way, is the redness and the shiny skin of the tomato, but strangely, it’s the ones in the Yamamoto painting that I want to bite into. What do you think?
And in case you didn’t already fancy a tomato salad, here’s a poem by the sublime Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet murdered in hospital by the Pinochet regime following the coup in 1973. He had told his wife that he wanted to be reincarnated as an eagle and, when a friend visited their old home following Neruda’s death, he found an enormous eagle in the living room. Which may, of course, be a coincidence.
‘the tomato offers
of fiery color
and cool completeness.’
filled with tomatoes,
through the streets.
it enters at lunchtime,
its own light,
Unfortunately, we must
into living flesh,
populates the salads
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding
of the day,
of the roast
at the door,
the table, at the midpoint
star of earth, recurrent
its remarkable amplitude
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
of fiery color
and cool completeness.
Photo One (Lovely Tomatoes) – By Ewan at https://www.flickr.com/photos/the_ewan/2962762666
Photo Two (A Handful of Tomatoes) – By Scott Bauer / Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24784517
Photo Three (Tomatoes in a greenhouse) – By Lufa Farms [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four (Buzz Pollination) – By Bob Peterson from North Palm Beach, Florida, Planet Earth! – Buzz Pollination (Sonication), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38199019
Photo Five (The Tomatino Festival) – By flydime – La Tomatina (25.08.2010) / Spain, Buñol, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11911686