“Tomato is the best cook,” my grandmother used to say. She meant that by simply adding it to any food, tomato had the power to make a simple dish extraordinary. Her belief was shared by many enthusiastic cooks, who at the end of the 19th century adopted the New World vegetable/fruit and made it an essential ingredient of Greek cuisine.
In my previous post about moussaka, I mentioned the early use of tomato in the beginning of the 1900s, and a reader expressed disbelief in his comment: “what about the fact that tomatoes didn’t exist in Greece until around the 1600’s? How far back is enough for a food culture?” I think he meant what happened between 1600, when Columbus brought tomatoes to Europe, and the end of the 19th century—or more accurately the beginning of the 20th, when the use of tomatoes finally spread all over Greece.
Here I will try to answer his question.
My grandmother had probably heard stories from her elders about the much admired
rare plant that produced “golden apples,” as tomatoes were called then.
Peasant ingredient-based cuisines, like Greek cuisine and most cuisines of the southern Mediterranean, stubbornly stick to regional traditions and change very slowly. Home cooks make the most of their seasonal and local products, and they are reluctant to adopt new ingredients and ideas. I understand that it is difficult to believe that tomatoes only started to become part of the Greek table in the late 19th century. Greeks and foreigners alike wonder how one could cook the summer ladera, the ubiquitous vegetable stews—made with green beans, okra, eggplants, or zucchini—without tomatoes. In all these dishes the slightly acidic tomatoes perfectly balance the fruity and assertive Greek olive oil. It is a marriage of flavors that today we take for granted. The late adoption also partly explains why some Greek cooks tend to over-use tomatoes, often covering all other flavors with a thick, oily red sauce.
A brief history
My paternal grandmother, born around 1875, had probably heard stories from her elders about the much admired rare plant that produced “golden apples” (chryssomila), as tomatoes were called then—translating the Italian word pomodoro. Tomato plants were introduced to mainland Greece in 1815. That year, the story goes, Paul d’Yvrai, the French father superior of the Capuchins’ monastery in Plaka—the old picturesque Athenian neighborhood under the Acropolis—brought some tomato seeds, together with other bulbs and seeds, to decorate the garden of the famous monastery with rare flowers. Incidentally, Lord Byron had stayed in this monastery a few years back, in 1812. The red fruits of the plant were much admired, according to the story, and the seeds were later planted to a French family’s vegetable garden in Patissia—an Athenian suburb in those days. According to another version of the story, the tomato seeds were first cultivated in the garden of the French family, which had connections to Marseille. From there the tomatoes found their way to the Capuchin monks’ garden. In neither of the stories is there mention of the fruits being used in the kitchen.
Bear in mind that these were difficult years for Greece. The country was still under Ottoman rule until 1821, when the war of independence started. Clearly people had other priorities. In 1833 Prince Otto of Bavaria came to Greece as the first king of the newly created state, after the war and the political unrest that followed. The tiny Greek state ended about 200 kilometers north of Athens, and included only the islands of the Cyclades.
Friedrich Wilchelm Thiersch, a Bavarian scholar who visited the country in those days, published in 1833 a detailed account “About the Greek situation.” In it, he describes the vast difference between the people who lived in the villages of the mainland, “where families slept on the dirt floor of their homes, by the fire,” and the way of life in the homes of the merchant navy marines, in some Cycladic islands. “The (island) homes had lovely Venetian furniture, although slightly outmoded in style, but a complete copy of our own,” Thiersch writes. That explains why the first Greek-language cookbook—a translation from an Italian one—was published in 1827 not in Athens but on the cosmopolitan island of Syros.
In that book we find two recipes that use “golden apples.” The first is “Fried golden apples”: tomatoes are halved, emptied, stuffed with chopped liver and lots of spices, dipped in egg, dredged on breadcrumbs, and fried. We can, therefore, conclude that by 1827 tomatoes were somewhat available in Syros. But, of course, few if any Greek women were able to read that cookbook, so most cooks were trying to figure out what to do with the new fruit/vegetable. Some thought it similar to the eggplant and even called it “Frankish eggplant” for a time. In a kitchen ledger written probably in the early 1900s by a lady from Ithaca—the island of the Ionian Sea, on the western side of Greece—I found a strange version of moussaka that has sliced and fried tomatoes instead of eggplants.
But the second recipe of the Syros cookbook gives us a rare glimpse of tomatoes’ glorious future. The dish of “Eggs in Golden Apples’ sauce” looks like the first attempt to use tomatoes as flavoring for butter-fried eggs, together with salted sardines, onions, parsley, basil, and fish stock. Justin Demetri in his History of Pastawrites: “It was not until 1839 that the first pasta recipe with tomatoes was documented. However shortly thereafter tomatoes took hold, especially in the south of Italy.” The ubiquitous Italian red sauce found its way to the Greek kitchen soon after, I guess. “The rest of course is delicious history,” as Demetri points out.
Summer tomatoes, the only real ones
Flavorful tomatoes cultivated naturally under the Mediterranean sun reach the Greek markets in late May or early June. Throughout the summer, up until October in most parts of the country, ypethries (open air) tomatoes are wonderfully meaty and burst with flavor. In laiki—the farmers’ markets of Athens and other Greek cities—organic heirloom vegetables are becoming very popular, and sophisticated cooks favor the intensely flavored yet rare small tomatoes of the islands, especially those of Santorini, that grow in the dry and sandy soil. Santorini tomatoes are dense, and they are used for the most exquisite tomato paste one can find in Greece.
I keep in a basket the tomatoes I harvest from our garden, stem side up, adding new ones as my basket begins to empty. Even inferior-looking, somewhat unripe tomatoes ripen and become flavorful that way. I use the firm ones for salads, and with the softer or blemished ones I make sauces, or I use them to flavor my summer stews. Many Greek recipes ask for “tomato pulp.” Although you can use tinned, good-quality imported whole or diced tomatoes all year round, I suggest that you freeze fresh grated tomatoes in the summer, when they are plentiful and cheap. Divide the pulp into cup-size portions to have at hand whenever you need them. Winter greenhouse tomatoes are no substitute for the summer ones, and the simple Greek vegetable, chicken, or meat stews take on a completely different flavor if cooked with the frozen pulp of vine-ripened summer tomatoes.