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History of Tomatoes in Europe

In historical recordings of the early 16th century when conquistadors first entered the Aztec kingdom and encountered new foods, among them were tomatoes. Have you ever wondered what kinds of tomatoes were taken back to Spain and how they spread and became a most- loved fruit? If you did, you may find many interesting details in the article by M. López-Terrada from European Tomato project TRADITOM,

The History of the Arrival of the Tomato in Europe: an initial overview.

Here a huge effort was put into systematically sifting through the copious amounts of different sources from the 16th century such as the Chronicles of the Indies; the Lexicons; academic texts in botany, medicine, agronomy and gardening; books of cooking; herbals and even paintings and poetry. All of these records helped explain the best possible history of the introduction of the tomato into Europe.

The earliest recordings began with the return of Cortés’ expedition to Mesoamerica, tomatoes entered Spain, almost certainly through the port of Seville. The domesticated tomato was a large part of the Nahua diet. According to Bernardino de Sahagún who wrote the Florentine codex in 1569, “there were sellers of different varieties of tomatoes in the markets. Those who dealt in tomatoes usually sold the large and small ones that were yellow and red when they were at full ripeness. Dishonest traders in this fruit sold rotten and squashed ones that were still sour from not becoming fully ripe. Because they were still green when eaten, they provided no flavor at all and caused stomach upset, and rheums”. Spanish history from that point on recognized tomatoes in two forms: “tomatl” which were green tomatoes used as a sour ingredient in soups and stews, and “xaltomatl or xitomatl” which translated to “fruit tomato” and were red, yellow or white.

After the return of Cortés’ expedition, “only a few years later tomatoes were being cultivated in Europe”  The first mention of tomato is that of Pietro Mattioli in 1544: “Another species has been brought to Italy in our time, flattened like red apples and composed of segments, green at first and of a golden color when ripe”, later he called “aubergines of this kind as pomi d’oro”.

Later a scientist named Francisco Hernandez set off on an almost seven year scientific expedition to learn more about the nightshade family. After experimentation, Hernandez grouped together information in a collection of four species of Solanaceae “especies de solano” or “species of the nightshade”, the first of which was the tomato.

Tomatoes were not only studied by botanists but also consumed by common people, which is evident from findings in purchased books of different households and in botanical watercolors of 16th century artists. While most references, by Nahua as well as later from Europe, tell us that tomatoes were consumed “cooked and seasoned with oil, salt and pepper”, there are even descriptions of tomato salad as in the play La muerte del apetito by Sor Marcela de San Feliz:

“I would like them to make me
A black pudding, with a nice sausage,
And not a small one,
For my hunger has no limits.
I would like something
Served cold, and a salad
Of tomatoes and cucumbers.
How many kinds of wine
Are there in the pantry? “

View the full article here.

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