Cherry tomatoes. I’ve been obsessing over them. Yes, I know I’ve written several blogs about home grown tomatoes, but not one specifically focused on cherry tomatoes. This year’s crop is huge. Usually I’m picking the cherry tomatoes while they are still a red/orange, anxious to pop them in my mouth, but this year we have so many tomatoes, they are staying on the vine till they approach a bright deep red. Luscious and sweet, their abundance has prompted me to do a little research.
The description “cherry tomatoes” may lead some people to assume these lovely little tomatoes are the result of crossbreeding a tomato with a cherry. Not true. The name is based on the shape and remember that cherries grow on trees and tomatoes are a flowering plant.
Tomatoes, tomatl in Aztec, are thought to have originated in the mountainous regions of South America, primarily in today’s Peru and Ecuador. As the Spanish and Italians were the first European explorers to visit that part of the world, they were probably the first Europeans to recognize the cooking potential of the fleshy round fruit which came in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. The early tomatoes brought back to Europe may have been bright yellow or orange in color, as the Italians referred to the tomato as pomodoro, literal translation“golden apple.”
Although logically one would think that the tomato reached the colonist via the Native American trade between North and South America, historians write that the tomato was introduced to the colonists via Europe. Thomas Jefferson raised them at Monticello in 1781. More prevalent in Southern cuisine than in New England cuisine, the tomato did not become widely popular in the United States until the beginning of the 20th century.
In 16th and 17th century France and northern Europe, the tomato was initially grown as an ornamental plant and not eaten, probably because botanists recognized its close relationship to poisonous belladonna and deadly nightshade. It was, however, considered a very nice table decoration. The roots and leaves of the tomato plant do contain solanine, a neurotoxin, and should not under any circumstances be consumed.
The wild tomato was small in size and probably was just slightly larger than today’s cherry tomatoes. But bigger is better, and selectively tomatoes were cross bred with other larger tomatoes. From a commercial standpoint, a substantial tomato with thick skin not easily bruised is an easier tomato to transport. Tomatoes that are uniform in size are also easier to price and pack. The result, unfortunately is a tomato with less taste, particularly if it is picked prior to full ripening. Ethylene gas (produced naturally as part of the ripening process) piped into trucks will cause tomatoes to turn red. Thus by mid 20th century, tomatoes traveling long distances were picked green and “ripened” during transport. However, in order to obtain a sweet flavor tomatoes need to ripen on the vine.
But back to those little red tomatoes. The cherry tomato we buy in the food store today did not become popular until the 1970’s. The country that went to great lengths to cultivate, refine and promote the little bright red cherry tomatoes was the nation of Israel. The story goes something like this: the owner of Marks & Spencer, a British grocery chain, was in pursuit of a miniature tomato that was both sweet and had a longer shelf life. Israeli seed scientists at Hebrew University in Jerusalem introduced slow ripening genetics. By selectively breeding plants that produced smaller compact fruit, they got a sweeter tomato. Marks & Spencer distributed and promoted the “new” cherry tomatoes and consumers loved them. Quickly they became an international success and tomato farmers around the globe started taking an interest in this new crop.
The sweetest tomatoes, whatever the size, are the ones you grow yourself or at the very least, the ones that are not picked until ripe. But because they are small, it is easier to transport a carton of almost ripe cherry tomatoes to market in a small carton and not have them bruise, than a box of almost ripe full size tomatoes. Thus, they continue to be very popular.
I love using cherry tomatoes in salads because they cut down preparation time. No slicing or dicing. In cooking, fresh cherry tomatoes are easier to use to make sauces because no dousing in hot water to remove skin, and de-seeding is necessary. (Although some chefs insist on doing this even with cherry tomatoes).
Recipe for Basic Cherry Tomato Sauce
Ingredients You Will Need
4 tablespoons of Olive Oil
4 Garlic cloves finely chopped
½ cup of chopped onion
Fresh chopped basil
6 cups of Cherry tomatoes cleaned and washed
The provided amounts above are flexible. You’ll want to cover the bottom of a large cast iron pot with olive oil and start browning the garlic and onion in medium heat. Add the tomatoes. When they start to soften, you can speed them along by pressing them open with a spatula and then turn down the heat to low, add the basil and simmer. Your goal is to lose part of the fluid, so that the sauce becomes thick.
To this recipe you can add sautéed mushrooms, grated cheese, more onion, more herbs and spices—depending on whether you are serving this over pasta or over zucchini or over meatballs. And if you’ve made a lot, like I always do, you can freeze it and use it later.
Writing Prompt: Imagine your favorite tomato dish. Describe the smell, the taste, the texture, the appearance. What memories does it evoke? What do you hear when you are consuming that lovely tomato item– a song, a sound? Your meal is interrupted. How do you react? Try it with different characters. With different food items.
Thank you for reading. Please subscribe to my blog and follow me on twitter at SN Maril. Here is a flash piece I published last year in The Birdseed about regular size tomatoes. Enjoy.