“Tomato is the poor man’s summer bread” (Cretan proverb)
The wild, cherry- size tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum) is a plant which was originated mainly in Ecuador and Peru, but it was cultivated in Mexico, where it was called “tomatl”. It is said that it was taken to Europe by the Conquistadors in the 16th century. The French called it ‘pomme d’ amour’, the apple of love, and the Germans ‘apple of paradise’. The English loved its brilliant red colour but they held the fruit in suspicion because its leaves resembled that of Deadly Nightshade (Belladona), a poisonous plant which also belongs to the Solanaceae, the tomato’s plant family. In 1544, the famous physician and botanologist Matthiolus reports that the Italians ate the tomato but the fact is that they didn’t widely accept it before the beginning of 19th century. Most Europeans afraid its “poisonous” and/ or aphrodisiac qualities, both harmful for body and spirit, so they considered the tomato safer if it was cultivated just for ornamental purposes.
The name Lycopersicon derives from the Greek word “lycos” meaning wolf and the “persicon” meaning peach. It may refer to the tomato’s inferiority to the peach.
The tomato was introduced to Greece in 1818, by Friar Francis. He cultivated some plants in the garden of the Capuchin monastery at the Monument of Lysicrates (built in 335 B.C.) in Athens.
Its acceptance by most Greeks was rather slow. They also considered it poisonous. Recipes using tomatoes didn’t show up in cookbooks and women’s magazines until the last 15 years of 19th century. It is noteworthy that both, magazines and cookbooks, appealed to the middle and upper class and promoted not only the finding of Greekness in local customs but the westernization of culture as well.
The farmers, particularly in the mainland, had strong aversion for the tomatoes till the second decade of 20th century.
However, in 1880 a widespread cultivation of cherry tomatoes (tomatakia) begun in Santorini, a volcanic island with strong winds, limited land resources and sparse rainfall. The cultivation was a struggle against nature.
Tomato paste production from tomataki became one of the major products of the island. From the end of 19th century till 1970 it constituted the base of economic life of Santorini. In 1929 a paste-processing factory was built in the island so the tomato cultivation became particularly profitable. In 1949 12.000 stremmas of land gave 7.0000.000 kilos of tomatoes. The tomato paste was exported to Egypt, Turkey and countries of Middle East.
On the other hand, in 1911, two brothers, Michail and Kostis Manoussakis, had already founded the first Greek canning company, “Kyknos” (kyknos is the greek word for swan). It is still one of the major tomato brands in Greece. Whole peeled tomatoes and tomato paste are of its oldest products.
Today, tomato has attained great importance in Greek cuisine and is a permanent feature in local cooking of Peloponnesos and islands.