story

The spread of the tomato

History  

The tomato plant was probably not grown in England until the 1590s.

Spanish Distribution

After the Spanish colonisation of the Americas, the Spanish distributed the tomato throughout their colonies in the Caribbean. They also took it to the Philippines, whence it moved to southeast Asia and then the entire Asian continent. The Spanish also brought the tomato to Europe. It grew easily in Mediterranean climates, and cultivation began in the 1540s. It was probably eaten shortly after it was introduced, though it was certainly being used as food by the early 1600s in Spain. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692, though the author had apparently obtained these recipes from Spanish sources.

Tomatoes in Britain

The tomato plant was probably not grown in England until the 1590s. One of the earliest cultivators was John Gerard, a barber-surgeon. Gerard’s Herbal, published in 1597 and largely plagiarised from continental sources, is also one of the earliest discussions of the tomato in England. Gerard knew that the tomato was eaten in both Spain and Italy. Nonetheless, he believed that it was poisonous (tomato leaves and stems contain poisonous glycoalkaloids, but the fruit is safe). Gerard’s views were influential, and the tomato was considered unfit for eating (though not necessarily poisonous) for many years in Britain and its North American colonies. By the mid-1700s, however, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain; and before the end of that century, the Encyclopædia Britannica stated that the tomato was “in daily use” in soups, broths, and as a garnish. Tomatoes were originally known as “Love Apples”, possibly based on a mistranslation of the Italian name pomo d’oro (golden apple) as pomo d’amore.

In Victorian times, cultivation reached an industrial scale in glasshouses, most famously in Worthing. Pressure for housing land in the 1930s to 1960s saw the industry move west to Littlehampton, and to the market gardens south of Chichester. The British tomato industry has been decimated over the past fifteen years or so as cheap imports from Spain have flooded the supermarkets.

North America

The earliest reference to tomatoes being grown in British North America is from 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in what is today South Carolina. They may have been introduced from the Caribbean. By the mid-18th century, they were cultivated on some Carolina plantations, and probably in other parts of the South as well. It is possible that some people continued to think tomatoes were poisonous at this time; and in general, they were grown more as ornamental plants than as food. There are reports of one Robert Gibbon Johnson wolfing down tomatoes on the courthouse steps of Salem, New Jersey in 1820, in a public demonstration to prove their edibility. He did not fall to the ground, frothing at the mouth, or get appendicitis, as had been predicted. A good story, but probably not true. Cultured people like Thomas Jefferson, who ate tomatoes in Paris and sent some seeds home, knew the tomato was edible, but many of the less well-educated did not.

Tomatoes in France

The tomato was introduced to France through Provence from Italy during the late 18th century and became a culinary symbol of the French Revolution due to its red color. They are widely eaten in French cuisine.