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The mysteries of red gold

Italy’s relationship with the tomato developed over the course of three centuries and began on October 31, 1548, when a butler brought Cosimo de 'Medici, a basket full of tomatoes grown on the estate of the Grand Duke, Torre del Gallo, in Florence. Thanks to research funded by the Leverhulme Trust, David Gentilcore (born 1961) has published a book about the introduction and spread of the tomato plant, brought to Italy from the New World. Canadian-born Professor of Modern History and the History of Medicine at the University of Leicester in England, as well as a professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Colorno, Italy, Gentilcore describes, in detail, the odyssey of the tomato, "discovered" in Mexico by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in the 1620s to its becoming to a symbol of Italian food culture.

His book, La purpurea meraviglia, is divided into seven chapters, followed by an epilogue, and tells the long and, at times, confusing history of the tomato from its arrival in Naples, Sicily and Sardinia thanks to the diplomatic ties with Spain. Tomato plants were given as gifts, due to their rarity. Whereas potatoes spread quickly due to their ability ot fight famine, the tomato spread very slowly, and only in the seventeenth century after a doctor discovered that they were not harmful to one’s health.

Only at the end of the seventeenth century, do we find traces of tomato in Italian recipes. The oldest citation appears in Scalco alla moderna, written by Antonio Latini (1642-1696), a knight of Le Marche, and published in Naples in 1694, where tomatoes were often prepared stewed. A recipe for tomatoes fried in oli appears in a Neapolitan text from 1743, as well as Cuoco galante, written by Galante Conrad (1738-1836) 30 years later. There are twelve tomato recipes in Conrad’s book: always baked, but then stuffed, fried and served in a sauce, together with meat and fish, demonstrating the importance the tomato was gaining in Italian cuisine. In Cucina vegetale (1781), Conrad states that tomatoes are not only tasty but also healthy: "The acidity aides digestion, especially during the summer season." In the Cuoco maceratese (1781), Antonio Nebbia describes a modern preparation of rice and tomato soup.

The first mention of tomato being paired with pasta does not appear until 1839, when Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Bonvicino (1787-1859), describes vermicelli and tomatoes (or spaghetti with tomato sauce) in his book, Cucina teorico pratica. Cavalcanti underlines that the sauce must be prepared with many tomatoes, removing the seeds and watery part.

The tomato spread throughout Southern Italy in the nineteenth century, becoming the "ordinary food" of farmers. At the time, people also started jarring tomatoes to conserve them. In the Court of Parma, where the tomatoes arrived from the port of Genoa beginning in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the butler of the Duchess Maria Luigia, Agnoletti Vincent (1776-1834 ), wrote: "Tomatoes are prepared in different ways . They taste different, if they are red and fresh. " Later in1840, Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) published a famous recipe for Genoa-style ravioli tomato sauce. And from Maria Luigia’s records, we know that three years before her death in 1844, she had 80 jars, or 309 kilos, of tomato conserves made. Tomato sauce slowly made its way into cookbooks and finally was produced industrially with Parma as the Italian capital of its production.

Tomato sauce was not only paired with pasta, but with pizza, turning it “red,” as described for the first time in 1835 by Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870). There is a record from 1885 of the cultivation of a small, oval-shaped tomato with flat sides in Naples. It was red, grew in clusters and was given the name "King Umberto.” If the tomato was king, then pizza was the queen. In 1889, during her visit to Naples, the Queen was offered a tricolor pizza by the famous pizzaiolo, Raffaele Esposito, with mozzarella, tomato and basil; and thus the "Pizza Margherita" was born.

According to tradition, tomatoes were to be cooked twice: first to remove skin and seeds, and then to make a sauce or a dish. But in 1863, two Neapolitan doctors, Achille Spatuzzi and Luigi Somma, found that  tomatoes grown "during the summer months, still immature, could be eaten raw in salads with onion and oregano."

Heading back up the Italian peninsula, tomatoes and tomato paste replaced lard as a condiment for staple foods such as soup, rice, and polenta. In Tuscany, farmers used tomatoes sparingly in soups or with stale bread, as in the dish pappa al pomodoro, made famous thanks to the newspaper Giornalino di Gian Burrasca, that Tuscan writer Vamba (Luigi Bertelli) published in installments between 1907 and 1908 and a volume in 1911.

In 1931, the Touring Club of Italy published their Guida gastronomica d’Italia, claiming that tomatoes had conquered the cuisines of almost all regions in Italy and in 1950, with the coining of the "Mediterranean diet," the tomato secured its definitive role in Italian cuisine.

DAVID GENTILCORE, La purpurea meraviglia, Milan, Garzanti, 2010.

Edizioni Garzanti 

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