Chef and columnist O Tama Carey muses on the history of this sun-ripened beauty, what to do with an excess supply, and her fondest food memory involving Spanish tomatoes and garlic-rubbed toast.
O Tama Carey

19 Jan 2015 - 11:56 AM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 3:08 PM

The golden apple

Tomatoes are synonymous with Italian cuisine, especially in the food of the South; however, it's believed they originated in Peru or Mexico, and didn’t arrive in Italy until the sixteenth century. The Italian name for tomato comes from pomo d’oro, literally translated as “the golden apple”, but despite this title (and like eggplants), they were initially thought to be poisonous. It wasn’t until the middle of the eighteenth century that they started appearing in Italian food, yet once adopted, were used with great gusto. Indeed, pizza owes it existence to the golden apple. What began as a tasty snack of simple tomato sauce spread over flatbread became stuff of takeaway legend when a pizza with the colours of the Italian flag (red tomatoes, white mozzarella and green basil) was created to honour Princess Margherita. 


Excess tomatoes? Can them…

After the initial skepticism, tomatoes became such an integral part of Italian cuisine that scientists of the time took on the task of learning how to preserve them so they'd be available year round. This led to the ubiquitous canned tomatoes and tomato paste found in most pantries. There are also the more traditional methods, such as ‘strattu from Sicily, which is made by cooking down tomato sauce, spreading it on boards and laying it out in the sun to dry. There are also semi- and sun-dried tomatoes, excellent if done properly, although I still have a hard time enjoying them as they remind me of bad sandwich bars and 90s food. And then there’s passata, a simple tomato sauce made at the height of summer using perfectly ripe tomatoes. Traditionally, passata-making is a celebratory day-long event with family. The methods vary slightly from family to family, but typically tomatoes are pureed, then bottled.


Deadly nightshades

Part of the nightshade family, tomatoes grow on vines (the smell of which is something I love) with yellow flowers and are botanically classed as a berry. Although technically a fruit, they have a lower sugar content than most other fruits and are rich in umami, that savoury character that lends them to being widely used as a vegetable. Relatively easy to grow, especially in greenhouses, tomatoes are often picked off the vine when unripe and treated with ethylene gas, a harmless naturally occurring gas found in ripening fruit. This practice gives tomatoes the appearance of a ripe redness while still remaining firm and easy to transport and sell - sadly leaving you with a flavourless and mealy product that is unpleasant to eat. Tomatoes need their time in the sun.


Red, green, black, white, orange

Consider the endless varieties of tomatoes and you'll find yourself overwhelmed. There are at least 500 types. Up until a few years ago, options were mostly limited to round, cherry and perhaps a roma tomato, varieties that were grown for mass production. Now, however, forgotten heirloom varieties are reappearing everywhere. There are the bulbous oxheart (also known as beefsteak): with a rich red colour and sweet flavour (perfect for a salad Caprese). Green tomatoes can also be found and are tasty sliced, crumbed and fried. I’m also fond of a Black Russian, with its moody-coloured skin, firm flesh and tangy flavour. 


Tomatoes I have loved

Tomatoes are masters of disguise. They can take on so many different forms and flavours that there’s a type for everyone. I've always been fond of tomatoes on toast, and a toasted cheese-and-tomato sandwich has been a staple in my diet for as long as I remember. I had a revelation as a child in Spain when I got to eat the Catalan specialty, pan con tomate: toast rubbed with garlic, then rubbed with a cut tomato until the seeds spill out (the skin is discarded), served with a jug of olive oil and black pepper. But I think my favourite grown-up tomato preference is a Bloody Mary — savoury, spicy and, I’m convinced, very good for you.


Cook with tomatoes 


Cherry tomato, watermelon and black olive salad


Tomato, saffron and mozzarella arancini


Chargrilled hanger steak with fennel and chilli oil roasted cherry tomatoes


Blue swimmer crab with tomato, anchovy and chilli served with tagliatelle


Photographs by Benito Martin. Styling by Jerrie-Joy Redman-Lloyd.

Read our interview with Tama. View previous The Seasonal Cook columns and recipes.