From deadly to delicious

TO many gardeners, the humble tomato typifies everything that makes them get their hands dirty in the first place.

Tasty, colourful, versatile and easily comparable with other grower’s efforts, Solanum lycopersicum  season says it’s finally time to do something with that overgrown mess out the back!

Commonly perceived to be Italian, (although arguably popularised and perfected by them!), it is actually a pre-Columbian native of the central and southern Americas, where it has been grown for at least a thousand years – possibly even two thousand. It was brought back to Spain in the 1500s by the Conquistadors after their obliteration of the Aztecs, but did not gain much popularity there until the early 1700s.

Despite growing well in the Mediterranean climate, it was widely considered poisonous and grown for its ornamental value only. Part of the reason for this was the common use of pewter plates by the elites of the time, who noticed the tomato acid stripped the coating from them.

Lead poisoning

It has been suggested that the subsequent lead poisoning contributed to its deadly reputation, but its botanical classification as a member of the nightshade family likely contributed more.

While still considered a somewhat dangerous curiosity in northern Europe and Britain, Spain and Italy pushed ahead with cultivation and breeding, and by the 18th century local and specialised versions had been developed, with the pomi d’oro (‘Apple of Gold’ – today simply ‘pomodoro’) fast becoming a fixture in Italian cuisine among the paesanos (peasants), who didn’t mind the negative connotations of a plant that grows close to the ground.

It is commonly held that Naples pizza chef Raffaele Esposito was responsible for making tomatoes fashionable in 1889, when he was invited to prepare a pizza for King Umberto I and his wife Queen Margherita. He was admitted to the royal kitchens, where he prepared three pizzas, one of which was made in the ‘Tricolore’ – the Red, White and Green of the Italian flag being tomato, mozzarella and basil. Queen Margherita loved it, and with this news pizza (and tomato) became widespread across Europe.

• Get your tomato seedlings in now – if you haven’t already. Photo by Justin Stahl

Thomas Jefferson was one of the early pioneers of tomato cultivation in America. In 1781 he ironically introduced varieties from Europe rather than its native Mexico next door. The United States was the last major region to adopt the tomato, where lingering suspicions and perhaps association with ‘the natives’ prevented widespread adoption as a food crop until the 20th century.

Even as late as the 1830s, American colonists lived in fear of an allegedly deadly Green Tomato Worm, held to be as deadly as a rattlesnake. However, an emergent capitalism soon meant that a certain Mr Campbell’s soup company found a method for reducing shipping and transport costs by ‘condensing’ (ie. removing most of the water from) tomato juice into a soup, and his famous red-and-white tins have been a fixture of Americana ever since.

The Spanish introduced tomatoes to Asia early in the 1500s via the Philippines and contact with Portuguese Macau, but it remained generally unpopular, with the Imperial Chinese referring to it as ‘fan qie’, or barbarian eggplant. Eventually it was found to be suitable for near year-round harvesting in the humid southern regions, removing seasonal bottlenecks in nutrition for the agricultural and fishing-based societies of the time.

China

Today, Asia dominates tomato cultivation, with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reporting that China alone produced a massive 59 million tonnes of tomatoes in 2017, a full third of global production, while India and Turkey hold second and third position with 20.7 and 12.7 million tonnes respectively. Italy (6 million tonnes) and Spain (5.1 million) now occupy the seventh and eighth positions, while Australia is ranked at 48, with a total of 371,000 tonnes.

China’s astonishing success, as compared to India’s small scale yet efficient localised farming and Turkey’s favourable climate, is due to a strategic, national investment in industrial food production.

Massive ‘smart greenhouses’ regulated by artificial intelligence and produced with government subsidies, have quickly supplanted traditional open-field farms  as the industry rapidly shifts to a new production paradigm in just a few short years.

• The world’s largest greenhouse recently built in China to support its staggering 59 million tonne tomato industry – even though they’re not that big on eating it!

However, as tomato still does not feature widely in Chinese cuisine, most of the product is exported, often as tomato paste or powder, to be reconstituted or reconfigured in the receiving country. This generally means that under most international labelling laws, including ours, a product made almost entirely from industrial, heavily-fertilised tomato can be labelled as “Made in Australia” if it is substantially processed here, which may be as simple as adding more than 51% water.

The Chinese track record when it comes to food safety is patchy at best, as demonstrated by Chinese domestic demand for non-Chinese baby formula, more than a decade after the infamous contamination scandal.

Control

Which, rather neatly, comes back to the key reason why you should grow your own healthy food – control exactly what you eat, from seed to salad. I’ve been involved in the food industry for a long time now, and I can say that while most operators are honest, decent people who love putting food on your table, there are some who deserve to be pelted with rotten tomatoes.

All the more reason to grow your own, I say!

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Tomato growing schedule for perth

1. Start tomatoes off in a small, preferably biodegradable punnet, so as to transplant with the least amount of shock.

2. Transplant now, or in the next 3-4 weeks latest, into soil prepared with compost and blood and bone, or you can even use a good quality bag of organic potting mix. Don’t use yellow building sand!

3. After transplant, 7 weeks of rapid growth should follow, so feed your hungry toms a liquid fertiliser such as Charlie Carp (an organic Aussie product that repurposes the Murray-Darling Basin’s carp infestation) once a week.

4. By the second week of November, the temperature will be high enough for the flowers to start setting fruit, and that will continue onwards until the second week of December, which is mid-season for spring planting in Perth’s Mediterranean-esque climate.

5. The fruit (it’s not a vegetable!) will start ripening as they mature, with the first vine-ripened tomatoes ready by the first week of January, dependent on the individual variety.

6. They will continue cropping for the next five weeks, finishing off around the second week of February.

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