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Better red than dead - Ranier Fsadni

The Tomatina Festival, the protagonist of a kind of collective action painting, where a global crowd paints the town red. Photo: Shutterstock

The Tomatina Festival, the protagonist of a kind of collective action painting, where a global crowd paints the town red. Photo: Shutterstock

In a couple of weeks, the 11th edition of the Tomatina Festival will be held in the Spanish town of Buñol. People from all over the world will gleefully pelt and splat each other with over 100,000 kilos of tomatoes. It will bring to an end a season that you could say begins on July 15 — Tomato Day in Canada (thanks to the 2016 Tomato Act).

In between, there’s us, for whom the taste of summer, not least of the Santa Maria lull, is fresh bread soaked with ripe tomatoes and olive oil, enjoyed on the rocks. Or, at least, a simple tomato-based pizza, shared with friends on the balcony after a morning spent on the sand.

I say us. Of course, there are the Greeks, said to consume six tomatoes each per day (as opposed to, say, the Brits—under half a tomato each). Many Spaniards keep a bottle of tomato-based gazpacho in the fridge, treating the cold soup like a revitalising tonic to be sipped throughout the day.

As for the Italians, especially the Neapolitans, a cuisine without tomatoes is unimaginable. Erasing it would be like wiping Napoleon out of history.

The thing is that our culinary love affair with the tomato is not much older, in historical terms, than the Tomatina Festival or Tomato Day.

We might think of ħobż biż-żejt eaten in our bathing suits as back-to-nature. However, at the beginning of the 19th century, eating tomatoes was still considered a new-fangled notion, something rumoured to take place only in certain southern European regions.

No 18th-century recipe book so much as mentions a tomato sauce. The potato — brought back from the New World by Christopher Columbus (or Hernán Cortés) together with the tomato — quickly spread in different regions of Europe. With the tomato, things were different.

One reason had to do with how the Aztecs used what they called the nahauatl tomatl: as decoration, rather like the way we use fresh flowers.

Another is that the tomato was widely considered poisonous, especially in northern Europe (where it was linked to the nightshade family).

The first names for the tomato link it up to love. Love apple, in English; pomme d’amour, in French; liebesapfel in German. In Italian, pomo d’oro linked it up to the allure and desirability of gold.

So, although as early as the mid-16th century we find Pietro Mattioli write he’s heard that it was fried in certain regions of Italy, we find that it’s largely associated with romance, desire and danger.

In France, it was given as a romantic gift by gentlemen to ladies. Once more, rather like flowers might be given today, although with racier undertones for those who chose to hear them. The ‘love apple’ used to be the key ingredient for many potions—aphrodisiacs, stimulants and even repellents.

As for the Italians, especially the Neapolitans, a cuisine without tomatoes is unimaginable. Erasing it would be like wiping Napoleon out of history

Coffee and hot chocolate had some of the same connotations and, as with them, the beliefs about the tomato did have some biological basis. The fruit induces a remarkable range of sensations. It’s refreshing, astringent and hydrating. It opens appetites and helps digestion.

Today, we know it’s rich in almost every vitamin of the alphabet—A, B (various), C, E, K—and iron, calcium… It protects the vitality of cells and, being rich in potassium, protects against cramps — an athlete’s fruit. It’s low in calories and rich in protein (if you eat the seeds; so, good news for those too impatient to de-seed their tomatoes before helping themselves to a bite).

Despite some culinary mentions in southern Europe, Bohemia and England in earlier centuries, it’s only at the beginning of the 19th century that its constant use in the Italian kitchen begins.

Even then, the old rumours persist. In the US, in 1820, a close friend of President Thomas Jefferson, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, made a spectacle of eating a tomato in front of a huge crowd to demonstrate that it was edible. (It may have been the first instance of covert advertising since Jefferson’s farm grew tomatoes.)

Even so, four decades later, the enemies of President Abraham Lincoln tried to poison him by having tomatoes introduced into his dishes. The President loved them and the popularity of the tomato grew.

In Italy, widespread knowledge of the potential of the tomato progressed only slightly faster. It was in 1819, only one year before Johnson gave his demonstration in the US, that Vincenzo Corrado came out with several recipes. They ranged from using the tomato as a condiment to being the principal sauce.

It took another 20 years before Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino, revealed to his readers that tomatoes and pasta were a marriage made in heaven. The tomato was soon discovered to be a bigamist. The marriage with pizza was left to flourish and so did the spread of the tomato.

The history of our love affair with the tomato is not quite a story of the shedding of myths and taboos, followed by the discovery of the goodness of nature. It is inseparable from the industrialisation of food production.

It took the invention of techniques of preservation in cans to market tomatoes across the Atlantic and back. After meat, the tomato was the first food to be preserved in the new way, as early as 1847.

Within a quarter of a century, the best known Italian in the world was said to be Francesco Cirio of preserved peeled tomatoes fame. It was no longer Giuseppe Garibaldi, who had captured the Euro-American’s world imagination in 1860.

Indeed, the consumption of tomatoes was so significant that in the late 19th century the US government officially classified the fruit (which, botanically, the tomato is) as a vegetable for tax purposes. As a fruit it would have been untaxed.

It’s the cheap availability of tomatoes by this time that enables it to become a symbol of dissent. It’s in the late 19th century that the first rotten tomato is hurled towards a theatre stage.

Within a century, it becomes an icon of our times, as up-to-date a symbol as the apple. It’s a symbol of dissent (which is why the Dutch Socialist Party chose it as its logo in 1971); the name of the most authoritative aggregator of film reviews; the name of a popular time-management technique, the Pomodoro; the flavour of zestful simplicity.

And, now, with the Tomatina Festival, the protagonist of a kind of collective action painting, where a global crowd paints the town red.

Therefore,  the tomato: good to eat, good to think with.

ranierfsadni@europe.com

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