No that’s not an instruction, but a couple of the old names for something you’ve probably got fresh and in tins in your kitchen. If you have a garden or allotment and enjoy growing your own food you probably have them there as well.
“Wolf peach” is the literal translation of lycopersicum – an older botanical Latin name for this well known plant. Some of its relatives might also be sitting in your kitchen waiting to be eaten although others such as woody nightshade and black nightshade are pretty deadly with poisonous fruit or leaves so best kept out of the way. Indeed when Love Apples, another of their nicknames, were first introduced into northern Europe in the late 16thc many people avoided eating them thinking they shared the same deadly traits. Even without the benefits of modern hybridisation and improvement our ancestors didn’t know what they were missing. Nowadays there’s even a global society dedicated to them
I am of course talking about ….
Let’s start with the basics. The tomato is the edible berry of the plant now known as Solanum lycopersicum. It’s part of the large and very diverse Solanum genus, where its 3000 or so relatives include the potato and aubergine, and that in turn is part of the wider nightshade family, the Solanaceae. And believe it or not there are now more than 7000 varieties of tomatoes.
Given the way that most modern tomatoes grow its hard to believe that many of the over a dozen wild species are actually weak-stemmed vines that, because they can’t support the weight of their leaves and fruit, end up scrambling over the ground. Most, although not all, wild forms have small green fruits and can survive incredibly harsh conditions. They originated in the northern Andes probably mainly in Peru and Ecuador although some can be found on the coastal plain and on the Galapagos islands. The Inca are not thought to have domesticated them, instead that probably happened further north in the lands of the Olmec, Maya and Aztecs, several thousand years before the Spanish invaded in 1521.
[For more on these wild species see Iris Peralta’s paper on “Diversity of wild and cultivated tomatoes” and the World Tomato Society’s webpage on Solanum species]
Bernardino de Sahagún, the first chronicler of the Spanish conquest of what is now Mexico, uses the Náhuatl [Aztec] word tomatl to describe how tomatoes were an important part of the local diet.
In the markets he saw “large tomatoes, small tomatoes, green tomatoes, leaf tomatoes, thin tomatoes, sweet tomatoes, large serpent tomatoes, nipple shaped tomatoes, coyote tomatoes, sand tomatoes, and those which are yellow, very yellow, quite yellow, red, very red, quite ruddy, bright red, reddish, rosy dawn coloured…” [cited by Janet Long in the Cambridge World History of Food, vol2 , 2000]
Although there is some confusion in these early days with the tomatillo – (Physalis ixocarpa) – an unrelated lookalike which was also a big part of the local diet – it’s clear tomatoes soon entered the cuisine of the Spanish conquerors and colonists. This meant that when they were introduced to Spain it was as a known safe edible crop. From there they quickly spread to other parts of the Spanish empire notably southern Italy and Sicily where we know tomatoes were growing and being eaten by the 1540s.
Descriptions and pictures of the tomato can also be found in practically all the manuscript and printed herbals of the second half of the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth, with the first being in Pietro Andrea Matthioli’s commentary on the classical greek physician Dioscorides published in 1544. The earliest images date from the 1550s.
While other previously unknown plants from the New World, such as pumpkins, maize and runner beans, all looked vaguely similar to species grown in Europe, and so were given Spanish names tomatoes had no close resemblance and so it’s a version of that indigenous name tomatl that’s been adopted by almost every language. But not Italian. That’s maybe because of Matthioli. He described not the red tomato we might expect, but what he called “another sort of mandrake” which “had been bought to Italy in our time”. It was “flattened like the melerose [a sort of apple] and segmented, green at first and when ripe of a golden colour, which is eaten in the same manner as the aubergine – fried in oil with salt and pepper like mushrooms.”
His comparison with mandrake was to be the cause of problems later on. Mandrake had long been associated with witchcraft, poison and death – as well as being thought a powerful aphrodisiac – not necessarily the associations you’d want to get people to eat your tomatoes! The result was that it acquired a reputation for being both poisonous and a source of temptation. We also have to remember this is still the time when European botanists were still trying to fit unknown plants from the Americas into the classification of known plants which had been written about in classical texts. We, of course, know that this isn’t always possible but for Matthioli it caused a problem.
He got round the dilemma in a second edition of his book by calling them pomi d’oro or golden apples, relating them back to the golden apples of Greek mythology. They were found in the Garden of the Hesperides and appear in lots of stories, most famously that of Atalanta. At this point Matthioli also said he’d seen a red form too, but his original choice of name stuck so pomodoro is the Italian word for tomatoes of all colours and kinds.
Their other nickname – love apple – comes from around the same time too. There is a very detailed new analysis of all the early sources of information about tomatoes, including descriptions, dried specimens and images in Plant Biology in January 2022. What it shows is that there were herbarium specimens of tomatoes [unfortunately now no longer extant] in both Rome and Bologna which were said to be labelled Malus insana, mandragorae species Poma amoris [literally Mad apple mandrake the fruit of love]. So did “love apple” come from some association with the supposed aphrodisiac quality of the mandrake, or was it possibly from something more basic and even vulgar? That research study also puts forward the idea that the Spanish originally gave the name ‘love apple’ to the tomatillo because as the calyx splits open to reveal the fruit, it was thought to resemble female genitalia.
Whatever the reason it helps explain early references to tomatoes in France as Pommes d’amour and in Britain as Love Apples.
In the western Mediterranean region there were plenty of recipes by the end of the 16thc for dishes alla spagnuola or “in the Spanish style” that included tomato. But while the Spanish also took the tomato to their colonies in the Caribbean and the Philippines, from where it spread through Asia, by and large Northern Europe seemed resistant to its charms for a very long time.
John Gerard in his Herball of 1597 noted rather unenthusiastically that “in Spaine and those hot Regions they use to eate the apples prepared and boiled with pepper, salt, and oile: but they yeelde very little nourishment to the bodie, and the same nought and corrupt…. Likewise they do eate the apples with oile, vineger and pepper mixed togither for sauce to their meate, even as we in these cold countries do mustarde.” John Parkinson the apothecary to King James I and botanist for King Charles I, followed in Gerard’s footsteps and finished by suggesting British gardeners grew them only for their curiousity value.
Some were even less enthusiastic, with Richard Bradley the gardening writer and first Professor of Botany at Cambridge University, claiming in his 1728 botanical dictionary that while tomato plants were “agreeable to look at” the “fruit of most of them is dangerous”.
By the mid-18thc, however, such negativity and reluctance was slowly being broken down and tomatoes start making an appearance in the kitchen garden, although still without much acclaim. Philip Miller of Chelsea Physic Garden in his Gardeners Dictionary of 1754 says they “now much used” in soups in England because they give “an agreeable acid” before cautioning that “there are some persons who think them not wholesome, from their great moisture and coldness.” This general avoidance of tomatoes also spread to Britain’s north American colonies even though they were known to be growing there as early as 1710.
But you can sense a slowly changing attitude, perhaps because of the number of southern Europeans working in London who had none of these qualms. Thomas Hale, for example, in Eden, or, A compleat body of gardening of 1757 says “those who are use’d to eat with the Portuguese Jews know the value of it.”
But it still wasn’t enthusiastic. Even John Abercrombie who tells his readers how to grow tomatoes in Every Man his own Gardener warns they are “very luxuriant and rambling in their growth”, and “one stout plant in a place is sufficient.”
The same reluctance can be seen in France too. Although the famous Vilmorin-Andreux nursery had listed tomatoes in its early catalogues as ornamentals until 1778 when they were switched to the vegetable section. Later Abbe Rozier writng in his Dictionary of Agruclture in 1789 that “this plant is largely unknown by gardeners in the northern part of France and even if they are grown it is mostly from curiosity.
Everything begins to change around the turn of the century all across western Europe. Tomatoes are reported in the markets of Paris and are being grown in Versailles. Things change quite quickly too in the United States although the story of the first public eating of tomatoes by Robert Johnson in 1820 is amusing if apocryphal. [Its too long to spell out here but follow this link or look at Andrew Smith’s The Tomato in America, 1994 which you can read for free on-line.]
In Britain Joseph Sabine, secretary of the London [later Royal] Horticultural Society, read a paper to members in 1819 in outlining the history of the tomato. Surprisingly he notes there were only 4 kinds of red and 2 of yellow tomatoes known in Europe, and that only one was well known: “viz. the Large Love Apple, or Tomate Grosse of the French” It’s clear that the “original” yellow tomato was dropping out of favour because ” the Large Yellow Love Apple…. is not now much cultivated, and its seed was not amongst the collection received from France in the last spring.”
Sabine also explained that because of “the great use which has been made of the tomato of late years for culinary purposes… in soups and sauces; and …preserved for winter use in the manner of ketchup” it was now ” regularly grown in private gardens” and “for the market of the metropolis”.
Commercial growers must have been a bit over-optimistic of the potential, because one of the Society’s members, John Wilmot, reported he had 600 plants which produced about 20lbs fruit per plant, although some produced as much as 40lb with some “Individual fruits … of extraordinary size, many exceeding twelve inches in circumference, and weighing twelve ounces each.” Nevertheless “the growth of this fruit round London exceeded the demand, and I had therefore a great quantity undisposed of”.
After Sabine’s comprehensive coverage tomatoes really begin to become noticed. Some idea of how popular it was becoming can be seen by the number of mentions in the text of books, magazines and catalogues in the Biodiversity Heritage Library.[see right]
Part of the reason must also have been because, although tomatoes are relatively tender and so difficult to crop comemrcially outdoors, in 1833 a new process was invented for the production of large sheets of glass. Now glazing was not only available in l6 ft lengths but was much clearer and so let in more light. Combined with the abolition of the glass tax in 1845 it led to much cheaper greenhouses and meant that it was now economic for tomatoes to be grown commercially in controlled conditions.
Magazines begin to carry detailed cultivation notes and, as usual, John Claudius Loudon is a good indicator of what’s happening. In 1842 his Gardener’s Magazine reported that there was “scarcely a gentleman’s garden, either large or small, in which the love-apple may not be found growing and bearing fruit.” But it was still from a very limited range of varieties, and even by 1849 Carters Seeds still only offering one red and one yellow sort in their catalogue.
At the same time hybridisation, particularly crossing cherry forms with larger sorts began to take off. America led the way. Dr TJ Hand produced a variety named Trophy in 1847 which seemed to take the market by storm, and then Alexander Livingston, author of Livingston and the Tomato dedicated his life to producing new varieties of tomatoes in the late 19thc. Unfortunately many did not grow true from seed so most new varieties did not enter the commercial market. Kensington nurseryman William Bull’s catalogue for 1868 for example still had only 6 .
Nevertheless breeders did not give up and in 1867 The Florist and Pomologist reported on trials, both greenhouse and outdoor, held by the RHS in their gardens at Chiswick with at least 15 varieties imported from Germany, France and America. Some clearly didn’t do that well but those that did seem to have entered the commercial market and by 1875 Bull was offering 12 varieties.
But still there was resistance. If you’ve read Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson you might remember this encounter:
It was on Jerry’s cart tomatoes first appeared in the hamlet… At first sight, the basket of red and yellow fruit attracted Laura’s colour-loving eye. ‘What are those?’ she asked old Jerry. ‘Love-apples, me dear. Love-apples, they be; though some hignorant folks be a callin’ ’em tommytoes. But you don’t want any o’ they—nasty sour things, they be, as only gentry can eat. You have a nice sweet orange wi’ your penny.’ But Laura felt she must taste the love-apples and insisted upon having one.
Such daring created quite a sensation among the onlookers. ‘Don’t ‘ee go tryin’ to eat it, now,’ one woman urged. ‘It’ll only make ‘ee sick. I know because I had one of the nasty horrid things at our Minnie’s.’ And nasty, horrid things tomatoes remained in the popular estimation for years”
But it was not long before all that changed and tomatoes bought prosperity to several places in Britain as we’ll see in another post very soon…
In the meantime for more information, a good place to start, other than the various links above, is Clarissa Hyman’s Tomato: A Global History, published in 2019 by Reaktion as one of its “Edible” series.