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Tomato

Tomatoes originate from America and there are 1700 varieties grown around the world today. They were unheard of in Europe until the 16th century and were rarely eaten by Europeans until the 18th century. Today they have become prominent in the food-processing industry as well as in household gardens, even though their cultivation needs close, careful attention. Tomatoes are enjoyed fresh and also in various by-products.
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© Shutterstock / Tim UR

A short history of the tomato, from its origins to the present day

This fruit-vegetable is originally from the South American Andes and Mexico and was introduced to Europe in the 16th century following the discovery of the New World. However, until the 18th century, tomatoes were considered as exotic plants to be displayed in gardens. They were rarely eaten, as their red colour was associated with poisonous produce. Their production was limited as little was known about how to grow them or prepare them for eating. Finally, in the 18th century, this fruit-vegetable was incorporated into the European diet, mainly in the Mediterranean region.  The consumption and production of tomatoes spread throughout the rest of the continent from the 19th century onwards. Tomatoes are currently one of the most widely cultivated and consumed vegetables on the planet. Today, they are referred to as the queen of the vegetable patch.

From a tiny seed to an exquisite red fruit

Tomatoes have a short growing cycle (20 weeks), as do tobacco, peppers, potatoes and aubergines. There are two main, extensive, chemical-free farming methods for tomatoes: They are grown in fields and in greenhouses. Tomatoes need a cool, dry climate, well-tilled soil rich in minerals and regular watering.

Tomatoes should start to be sown in mid-March, under shelter, either on a plot of land called a seed bed or in a tray.

After germination, the seeds become tomato seedlings. These small plants are transplanted 3 to 6 weeks after sowing, depending on their growth, i.e. they are dug up and replanted in another patch of earth. Tomato plants grow vertically supported by stakes and are watered on the surface by spraying (using water-jets) or by drip irrigation (delivering water to the roots one drop at a time). Side shoots are then pinched out using your fingertips so that each branch only bears 7 to 8 tomatoes. Pruning is not only carried out during the growing phase. During fruiting, new shoots may appear between the stem and the leaves, requiring fresh pruning. Tomatoes can be picked ripe when they are of an even red colour.

The tomato, a fruit-vegetable

The tomato belongs to the Solanaceae family and is considered to be a fleshy berry (varying from green to red or yellow when ripe). The roots of a tomato plant grow up to 50 cm in length and the stem can reach 2 to 4 m in height. The foliage is arranged in a spiral, accompanied by regularly spaced, bisexual flowers which grow opposite or between the leaves. The fruit is the only part of the plant which is eaten. Gradually, through selection (depending on taste, nutritional value and chemical resistance), different varieties of tomato have appeared, such as vine tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, ‘pear tomatoes’ and round tomatoes, which are the most popular.

Alongside production for the fresh vegetable market, various processed tomato products exist. There are many ways of processing tomatoes, such as drying, thermal processing in tanks, pulp extraction and preserving. To produce concentrated tomato purée, tomatoes are washed, skinned, cooked and processed before being packaged. When tomatoes are really ripe, the pulp can be easily removed to produce sauce, purée or juice, for example. Ketchup is still one of the most popular products, made from tomato purée mixed with vinegar, sugar and spices.