Tomato – the edible, often red, veg of the plant Solanum lycopersicum, commonly known as a tomato plant. The plant belongs to the nightshade family, Solanaceae (potatoes, auberinges/ eggplants). The species originated in western South America.
Wild versions were small, like cherry tomatoes, and most likely yellow rather than red. A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were erroneously thought to be poisonous by Europeans who were suspicious. This was exacerbated by the interaction of the tomato’s acidic juice with pewter plates. The leaves and immature fruit in fact contain trace amounts of solanine which in larger quantity would be toxic, although the ripe fruit does not. Aztecs used the fruit in their cooking. The Nahuatl (Aztec language) word tomatl gave rise to the Spanish word “tomate”, from which the English word tomato derived. The exact date of domestication is unknown, but by 500 BC it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico. The Pueblo people are thought to have believed that those who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination. The large, lumpy variety of tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in 1521. Christopher Columbus may have taken them back as early as 1493. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in a herbal written in 1544 by an Italian physician and botanist who suggested that a new type of aubergine/ eggplant had been brought to Italy that was blood red or golden color when mature and could be divided into segments and eaten like an eggplant – cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper, and oil. It was not until ten years later that tomatoes were named in print by Mattioli as pomi d’oro, or “golden apples”. Taken to Europe, the tomato grew easily in Mediterranean climates and cultivation began in the 1540s. It was probably eaten shortly after it was introduced, and was certainly being used as food by the early 17th century in Spain.
Tomatoes were grown mainly as ornamentals early on after their arrival in Italy. For example, the Florentine aristocrat Giovanvettorio Soderini wrote how they “were to be sought only for their beauty”, and were grown only in gardens or flower beds. The tomato’s ability to mutate and create new and different varieties helped contribute to its success and spread throughout Italy. However, even in areas where the climate supported growing tomatoes, their habit of growing to the ground suggested low status. They were not adopted as a staple of the peasant population because they were not as filling as other fruits already available. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692.
Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590s. However, by the mid-18th century, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain, and before the end of that century, the Encyclopaedia Britannica stated the tomato was “in daily use” in soups and broths. They were not part of the average person’s diet, and though by 1820 they were described as “to be seen in great abundance in all our vegetable markets” and to be “used by all our best cooks”, reference was made to their cultivation in gardens still “for the singularity of their appearance”, while their use in cooking was associated with exotic Italian cuisine.
Botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit, a berry, consisting of the ovary together with its seeds, of a flowering plant. However, the tomato has a much lower sugar content than other edible fruits, and is therefore not as sweet. Typically served as part of a salad or main course, rather than at dessert, it is considered a culinary vegetable. One exception is that tomatoes are treated as a fruit in home canning practices: they are acidic enough to process in a water bath rather than a pressure cooker as vegetables require.
Tomato plants are vines, initially decumbent, typically growing 180 cm (6 ft) or more above the ground if supported, although erect bush varieties have been bred, generally 100 cm (3 ft) tall or shorter. Tomato plants are dicots and grow as a series of branching stems, with a terminal bud at the tip that does the actual growing. When that tip eventually stops growing, whether because of pruning or flowering, lateral buds take over and grow into other, fully functional, vines. Tomato vines are covered with fine short hairs. These hairs facilitate the vining process, turning into roots wherever the plant is in contact with the ground and moisture.
The poor taste and lack of sugar in modern garden and commercial tomato varieties resulted from breeding tomatoes to ripen uniformly red. This change occurred after discovery of a mutant “u” phenotype in the mid 20th century that ripened “u”niformly. This was widely cross-bred to produce red fruit without the typical green ring around the stem on uncross-bred varieties. Prior to general introduction of this trait, most tomatoes produced more sugar during ripening, and were sweeter and more flavorful.
Here are some to try growing:
Garden Pearl (Determinate) – Sweet cherry tomatoes, happiest in large pots outdoors.
Marmande (Semi-determinate) – Large irregular fruits with excellent flavour, happiest grown outdoors.
San Marzano 2 (Semi-determinate) – Classic flashy Italian plum tomato, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.
Golden Sunrise (Indeterminate) – Distinct sweet flavour, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.
Red Cherry (Indeterminate) – Prolific crops of sweet ‘cherry toms’ happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.
Tigerella (Indeterminate) – Good flavour and novel stripes on the skin, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.
Sungold F1 (Cherry) – Attractive golden fruits with a very high sugar content balanced with some acidity, Indeterminate.
Shirley F1 – A much loved variety famed for its heavy yields of well-flavoured fruits – an outstanding hybrid. Indeterminate.
Loretto F1 – sweet cherry sized fruits with excellent flavour and a good choice for outdoor containers. Resistance to blight is one of the major benefits of this cascading ‘bush’ tomato. Indeterminate.
Alicante F1 – One of the best for flavour and very reliable yielding a good crop of medium sized tomatoes. Indeterminate.
Ferline F1 – A top quality tomato variety producing high yields of large and tasty fruits. Trials have shown that tomato Ferline F1 has excellent resistant to blight. Indeterminate.
Indeterminate – these varieties of tomatoes are the most common and are grown as cordons (single stemmed plants with side shoots removed). They will grow very tall – sometimes taller than 2.5m in very warm conditions.
Bush/Determinate – these varieties stop growing sooner than indeterminate varieties with the stem ending in a fruit truss. They are referred to as ‘bush’ and ‘dwarf’ types (suitable as hanging basket tomatoes) and don’t require any pruning.
Semi-determinate – these are similar to indeterminate varieties (grown as cordons) only they produce shorter plants.
Types of tomatoes:
- Beefsteak tomatoes – 10 cm (4 in) or more in diameter. Their kidney-bean shape, thinner skin, and shorter shelf life makes commercial use impractical.
- Plum tomatoes, or paste tomatoes (including pear tomatoes), are bred with a lower water /higher solids content for use in tomato sauce for canning and are usually oblong 7–9 cm (3–4 in) long and 4–5 cm (1.6–2.0 in) diameter; like the Roma-type tomatoes.
- Cherry tomatoes – small and round, often sweet tomatoes, about the same 1–2 cm (0.4–0.8 in) size as the wild tomato. Probably my personal favourite.
- Grape tomatoes – are smaller and oblong, a variation on plum tomatoes.
- Campari – are sweet and noted for their juiciness, low acidity, and lack of mealiness, bigger than cherry tomatoes, and smaller than plum tomatoes.
- Tomberries – tiny tomatoes, about 5 mm in diameter.
- Oxheart tomatoes can range in size up to beefsteaks, and are shaped like large strawberries.
- Pear tomatoes are pear-shaped and can make a rich gourmet paste.
- “Slicing” or “globe” tomatoes are the usual tomatoes of commerce, used for a wide variety of processing and fresh eating. The most widely grown commercial tomatoes tend to be in the 5–6 cm (2.0–2.4 in) diameter range.
Heirloom tomatoes are becoming popular amongst home growers as they tend to produce more interesting and flavorful crops at the cost of disease resistance and productivity. The definition of an heirloom tomato is vague, but unlike commercial hybrids, all are self-fertile varieties that have bred true for 40 years or more.
How to grow tomatoes
In England, we can be kind-of lucky and get some tomatoes off the vines when we grow them outside, but really it is easier to do it in a greenhouse as they will prefer warmer growing conditions.
Tomato seed is normally sown 6-8 weeks before the last frost date (March/April) although they can be sown earlier for greenhouse cultivation. Sprinkle your tomato seed thinly on the surface of good quality seed compost. Cover the seed with about 1.5mm (1/16in) of compost and water lightly with a fine-rose watering can. If only a few plants are required sow two seeds into a 7.5cm (3in) pot and after germination remove the smaller plant. The seeds generally germinate in about 7 to 14 days at a temperature of around 21C (70F). Keep the compost moist. Pot on the tomato seedlings when large enough to handle, taking care not to touch the stem. Handle the plants by the leaves and transplant them carefully into 7.5cm (3in) pots. Take care not to expose the plants to frost, cold winds and draughts as this may kill them. Tomatoes need a lot of water and feed (high potash) to get the best fruit. Water little and often for the best results. If growing outdoors, plant approximately 45cm (18 in) between the plants and 75cm (30in) between the rows. Regularly pinching out of tomato side shoots will concentrate the plant’s energy into producing fruit.
One of the most common problems when growing tomatoes is tomato blight, which spreads quickly throughout the plant in wet weather, causing the plant to die and the fruits to decay. The symptoms are brown patches on all parts of the plant. It is much more common in tomatoes growing outside than tomatoes growing in a greenhouse.
Start picking your tomatoes as the fruits ripen and gain full colour. When frost threatens at the end of the season, lift any plants with unripe fruit on them and hang them upside down under cover.
Tomatoes contain excellent amounts of fiber, vitamins A, C (to resist infections), and K, potassium (controlling heart rate and blood pressure), and manganese. Good amounts of vitamin E (alpha tocopherol), thiamin, niacin, Vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper are other resources. In daily value, tomatoes provide 38% of what is needed in vitamin C, 30% in vitamin A, and 18% in vitamin K. Tests suggest tomatoes may be a preventive factor against prostate cancer. Lycopene flavonoid antioxidant has the ability to protect the cells even as it protects the skin from ultraviolet damage, and as a possible result, skin cancer. Lycopene in tomatoes has been proven to decrease oxidative stress and risk of osteoporosis and prevent serum lipid oxidation, thus exerting a protective effect against cardiovascular diseases. The coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid, in tomatoes, fight against nitrosamines, which are the main carcinogens found in cigarettes. The presence of vitamin A in high quantities has been shown to reduce the effects of carcinogens and can protect you against lung cancer. Tomatoes keep the digestive system healthy by preventing both constipation and diarrhoea. They also prevent jaundice and effectively remove toxins from the body.
There are so many ways of using tomatoes and they are such a valuable crop to grow yourself. You can eat them raw, as part of a salad or cheese sandwich, cheese toasty, stuff them, cook with them to make a sauce for any dish, fry them to go with your English breakfast, sun dry them, bottle or can to make your own tinned tomatoes, always a handy thing to have at hand for a quick meal…
Here are some recipes that use tomatoes. Plenty more on the site!
Quinoa – Chicken Casserole
Salad – Rocket – Pasta and tinned tomatoes and rocket
Keep searching for more recipes!