When we think of Italian ingredients, the very first thing that comes to mind is tomatoes. But tomatoes aren’t exactly Italian… in fact, they’re not even from the European continent at all. No, tomatoes are considered a ‘new world’ ingredient – they’re from the Americas and weren’t known to Europeans until they sailed across the Atlantic. (It unfortunately still needs to be stated that Christopher Columbus didn’t discover the Americas, they were inhabited lands and all he did was create a connection between the two… and begin a very complex history.)

Tomatoes, as well as potatoes, corn, pumpkin and several other native American foods that have become core parts of our diet, didn’t reach Europe until the 16th century and they weren’t exactly embraced with open arms…

Tomatoes, along with eggplants, capsicums, chilies, potatoes and several other vegetables, are all nightshade vegetables and the Europeans thought they were poisonous. The tomato in particular suffered from bad press because wealthy Europeans used plates made from pewter (which is high in lead) and the acid in the tomatoes would cause the lead to leech out and kill them.

Poor people ate primarily off wood, so they ate tomatoes as a major part of their diet. In particular, poor Italians ate a lot of tomatoes because they were easy to grow in the Mediterranean climate.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that tomatoes began to shed their bad reputation and become a mainstay of the European diet… and that is primarily due to the invention of one of the world’s favourite food: pizza. The tomato was chosen to represent the red of the Italian flag. (The mozzarella and basil represent the white and green respectively.)

Italian cuisine as we know it today is much younger than many people realise and it’s all due to one little fruit (yes, tomato is a fruit) that most of Europe thought was poisonous for nearly 200 years.

Weird, right?

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