Crumbs of Enlightenment: Italy, before tomatoes

Late August, early September is a tango between chlorine scented pool parties, and the bustling beginning of a new school year. This intricate line between a sun-drenched summer day and whispers of the coming cool autumn can be seen in farmer’s markets everywhere. One item that is abundant during this transition are tomatoes. Bright, sweet cherry tomatoes tucked snuggly in electric green baskets. Plump, juicy rainbow striped heirlooms, and rows of beefsteak, pantano romanesco envelope the senses. One of my favorite foods is the star attraction! During this time, I obsess, gathering bags of red, yellow, and orange like a chestnut hoarding rodent. Sauces are simmered, ripe slices drizzled with olive oil, and bright salads studded with red are my daily occurrence.

Recently, I was coming up with a list of great flavor pairings with tomatoes (like all absolutely normal people do), and I started to realize a common theme: Italian. When the average person envisions a cuisine that celebrates the tomato, Italian tends to be the sheer winner. The humble fruit/vegetable has touched almost every corner of Italian cuisine. From the acidic, thickened pomodoro sauce, to the ever-refreshing bruschetta piled high, the tomato is a star ingredient in many Italian dishes. The iconic pizza that has stolen the hearts of billions isn’t as good without at least a thin layer of fragrant tomato sauce. And one of the most incredible combinations known to man is ripe tomato wedges, cold slices of fresh mozzarella, and herbaceous basil, topped with a thick drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. Italians seemed to have unlocked the secret to this humble ingredient.

But, it wasn’t actually prolific in their diet until the 1800’s. No, the ever-popular fruit was not present in the original Italian diet. In fact, it wasn’t truly appreciated in the country (or most of Europe) until the mid-1800’s. The Italian diet before tomatoes were rich in the same ingredients as most Mediterranean diets. Nuts, herbs, olives, fresh pasta (sans tomato), flatbreads, and various poultry/seafood. Pheasant stuffed with prunes was quite the dish for royalty at the time. It wasn’t until the around the mid 1500’s for early tomatoes to start trickling into the country. At this time, they were what resembles modern day cherry tomatoes, but a golden yellow (a nickname at the time was “golden apple”). Unfortunately for Italians (and the rest of the world), they wouldn’t start commonly using tomatoes in their cuisine for almost another 200 years.

The reason? Tomatoes were killing people more often than feeding them. This may be an exaggeration, but tomato poisoning was quite common during the early introduction, which in turn, earned the tomato quite the reputation. It was later discovered why people were dying from this most delicious of ingredients. The very wealthy and elite of Italy used pewter plates to eat their dinner, so when tomatoes were served, the plates were leaching lead into the highly acidic tomatoes. Therefore, death by tomato.

Peasants at that time were consuming tomatoes regularly, due to the fact that they ate primarily off of wooden plates. But it wasn’t until the 1800’s that tomatoes spread like wildfire. One of the most magical creations on earth came into existence during this time: pizza. All throughout Italy, pizzerias adapted tomato sauce topped on flatbreads. It is rumored that by 1809 there were already over 50 pizzerias in Naples. And Naples is well known for perfecting the humble pizza.

In 1889, to impress Queen Margherita, there were various flatbreads (early pizza) created to impress her. She was enamored by the pizza decorated like the flag of Italy. Speckled with red, rich tomato sauce, white, melted mozzarella, and green in the form of fresh basil. It was named after her, and “Pizzeria Brandi” lives this tale, as this was the location of the legendary creation. It is STILL operating to this day. Personally, margherita is one of my favorite pizzas. Simplicity speaks to me more than anything when it comes to a plate of pizza. Fresh herbs, melted mozzarella, and a rich umami tomato sauce, this pizza is the definition of good food. The only way to make it better is to add fresh, crisp, arugula (even though I am disagreed with often). Salad pizza for life.

It is difficult to imagine an Italy without tomato. Italy can be defined by the simple fruit/vegetable. But I also think it is unfair to define an entire country with one ingredient. Italy is deep in seafood dishes, wonderful nutty concoctions, and endless streams of fresh inspiration. We need to think outside the box, especially when it comes to solidified cuisines like Italian. Italy is not all tomatoes, just like Britain is not all fish n’ chips, Canada is not all poutine, Japan is not just sushi, and America is not just fast food. The more we explore, the closer we grow to our worldwide neighbors.