Sinking your teeth into the summer-sweet flesh of a British tomato, it’s hard to believe that the fruit was once the subject of hatred and contempt. Eastern European religious Jews believed that the red juices running out of the fruit were a form of bad blood and therefore treif.
They also believed that the voluptuous ripe fruit held extraordinary aphrodisiac qualities. The tomato was not mentioned in the Talmud as it had only been introduced from the New World in the 16th century and, like the aubergine, is a member of the deadly nightshade family, so it was thought it could be poisonous.
In fact, people did get sick from tomatoes. Pewter utensils with a high lead content were common 500 years ago, and tomatoes were often stored in these containers. The juice absorbed some of the lead and many died of lead poisoning, adding weight to the fable. So until the 19th century, tomatoes were largely used for their decorativeness and novelty value. Nevertheless, even after this time, the East European Chasids perpetuated the myth, and would spit at stall holders and shop owners who sold the offending fruit.
Now again, in the 21st century, the tomato is the subject of major debate. Scientists in the Neve-Yaar Research Centre in Israel have created a revolutionary strain of tomato scented with rose and lemon plants. This contentious work was initiated to improve the flavour and aroma of the fruit.
However, the new-style tomato has met with huge disapproval, not only from those who hate genetically modified foods but also the strictly Orthodox faction in the country.
Certainly there are arguments for genetically modified foods which are designed to be disease resistant and thus able to feed millions of starving people, following the ideals of pikuach nefesh — the commandment to save lives.
However a section in the Talmud asks whether we should engineer God’s building blocks. And it seems as if the tomato agrees and is fighting back. For this new extraordinary, pale creation contains only half the amount of the antioxidant lycopene — the element found almost exclusively in tomatoes — which can combat prostate cancer and possibly heart disease.
If tomatoes are cooked with a little oil or fat, even more lycopene can be obtained. Apart from lycopene, a sun-ripened tomato is full of vitamins A and C, calcium and fibre.
And the tomato is surely one of the most valuable assets in the culinary world. Crush sweet cherry tomatoes, combine with a little finely chopped red onion, masses of basil, season well with plenty of freshly milled salt and pepper, maybe a little crushed garlic and top toasted bagels layered with taleggio or mozzarella cheese for a bruschetta with a haimishe twist.
Or you could make a summer side-salad combining chopped watercress and rocket with masses of sliced tomato, a handful of still-warm quick-cooked broad beans — remove the outer skins if you wish — and maybe some new potatoes cooked in their skins. Then add rinsed salted capers, lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil.
EASY TOMATO SOUP
Serves 8 approx
1 peeled and sliced onion, plus 1 skinned crushed clove garlic (opt)
1 dessert sp olive oil
1 kg, 2¼ lb of fresh tomatoes
3 finely chopped celery sticks
4 peeled and chopped carrots
Few sprigs fresh thyme – leaves only
25g, 1oz chopped fresh parsley.
Vegetable or chicken stock to cover, approx 2 litres
Freshly ground salt and pepper
1 teasp. sugar – brings out the tomato flavour
1 tin chopped tomatoes
25g, 1oz basil
- In a large pot sweat onions and garlic in oil until tender.
- Add the rest of the ingredients, except tinned tomatoes, and simmer, lid on, until carrots are tender – about 20 minutes.
- Add tinned tomatoes, then process and season, adding cooked beans, rice or pasta.