Tomatoes are a very versatile food-source and apart from being a staple of Italian cuisine, we often eat them raw in salads and sandwiches. They come to us in many forms including whole or chopped tinned tomatoes, tomato ketchup, salsa sauce, tomato puree, sun-dried tomatoes, which have a chewy consistency and a strong flavour, and of course tomato soup. They can also be used in olive breads as well as in cakes and a whole host of different recipes. I have a glass of tomato juice for breakfast every morning and I never get tired of it. A Bloody Mary, vodka and tomato juice, is a very popular alcoholic drink. Although the typical tomato is red, they were originally orange and yellow. Pink, green, purple-black and even white tomatoes are available these days.
We think of them as vegetables but technically-speaking tomatoes are berries and therefore fruits. They are a member of the deadly nightshade family and when they first came to Europe the locals were wary of eating them. Originating in South and Central America they were first used as a foodstuff in Mexico and were brought to Europe after the Spanish occupation, arriving in the U.K. in the 1590’s. Today China is by far the largest producer of tomatoes with over fifty million tons annually.
They consist of 95% water, 4% carbohydrate and 1% fat and protein. They are considered by many to be a superfood because they have a number of very beneficial contents such as vitamin A and C, fibre (very useful in avoiding constipation) and potassium (which may well keep blood pressure down and lessens the likelihood of a stroke) as well as an antioxidant called lycopene which gives them their colour and also, according to some researchers, helps to prevent the advent of prostate cancer as well as protecting the skin against ultraviolet rays and reducing bad cholesterol. The issue of lycopene is increased by cooking but at the same time this reduces the Vitamin C content. They’re beneficial for your heart and are also low in calories. They taste great too.
Personally I prefer the small cherry tomatoes as they usually have a lot more taste than the average larger tomato sold in the U.K. Beef(steak) tomatoes, which are about four inches (ten centimetres) in diameter, are also generally tastier but have a shorter shelf-life than smaller varieties. Tomatoes harvested in early autumn will have a better flavour and don’t be shy about sniffing them before buying as if you can detect a strong aroma, they will have a better taste. It’s best to store tomatoes at room temperature and not in direct sunlight and they can lose their flavour if kept in a refrigerator.
The Tomatina Festival takes place on the last Wednesday in August every year in the small town of Bunol, not far from Valencia in Spain, and it’s basically a food fight in which the twenty thousand participants pelt each other with over-ripe tomatoes. If that all sounds too messy or strenuous for you, stick to eating tomatoes or start growing them yourself. They can be rather difficult to grow but remember to give each seeding plenty of space as well as lots of light, heat and water. Be sure to allow them plenty of room as they can grow up to ten feet (three metres) high and need to be supported on sticks.