If you’ve ever been to Italy, you’ve surely noticed the extensive variety of tomatoes lined up in shops and supermarkets. All of them are so delicious it’s hard to distinguish the best.
One ferociously-named variety is the “beef heart” tomato, which will surprise you when you cut into it because it won’t run with fresh juice. As you bite into a beef heart tomato wondering whether the experience is like biting into a cow’s heart, you’ll be surprised to find that the texture isn’t like other tomatoes at all—because it isn’t juicy. Sometimes you’ll come across beef heart tomatoes that don’t have the best color and you’ll be reluctant to eat them… but when you do, your entire mouth is flooded with delicious tomato-y flavor. It really is a strange one.
Another variety is the pizzutello tomato, which comes from the Mount Vesuvius area in Sicily. It’s incredible that you can easily find such a fine tomato in almost any supermarket. It has a distinctive, fresh-picked tomato aroma that is just the best.
Long, thin San Marzano tomatoes, native to Campania in Southern Italy, are said to be the perfect variety for making red sauce. They’re also prized as canning tomatoes since their robust shape holds together even after being boiled down. San Marzanos look delicious, have a delightful texture, and are just the right size for making stews. You can probably find them in Japan as well.
I was amazed to learn that there are more than eight thousand tomato varieties in the world. These days, you can find tomatoes in lots of colors besides red—including blue, white, and yellow. Just setting out these rainbow-colored tomatoes brightens up the table!
But despite how important tomatoes are to Italian cooking, it was relatively recently that the tomato became popular in the country. The Tomato Museum in Parma does a great job of explaining how tomatoes came to Italy. They apparently first originated in South America, crossing into Mexico and from there to Spain before arriving in Italy. But people’s systems didn’t react well when tomatoes first arrived, leading to mistrust and even rumors that they were poisonous. Tomatoes caught on as ornamental, decorative, and medicinal plants instead. One explanation is that people were confusing tomatoes with similar plants that actually are poisonous, but my guess is that because the Italians didn’t have a long history of eating tomatoes, their digestive systems weren’t genetically set up to handle the unfamiliar food, leading to their stomach problems.
Because people weren’t digesting them well, the nobles and other Italians probably ended up gifting tomatoes as ornamental plants. They only started eating them around two hundred years ago.
The word for tomato in Italian is pomodoro, but strictly speaking, it turns out that the two words refer to different plants. Pomo is Latin for “apple”, and oro means “golden”.
In other words, tomatoes are “golden apples”.