Tomatoes originate from the Andes in South America, where they grow wild in what is now Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador. They were first cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas as early as 700 AD.
The English word 'tomato' comes from the Aztec word, tomatl.
Tomatoes first arrived in Europe in the 16th Century, although how they got here is unclear. Some say that they were brought back from Central America by Spanish Conquistadors, while another legend suggests that two Jesuit priests brought them to Italy from Mexico.
The first cultivated tomatoes were yellow and cherry-sized, earning them the name golden apples: pommes d'or in French, pomi d'oro in Italian and goldapfel in German. The Italian for tomatoes today is pomodoro.
The Latin name for the cultivated tomato is Lycopersicon, or 'wolf peach', no doubt a reflection of the long-held belief that the tomato was poisonous; tomatoes were originally grown in Britain and the rest of Europe for their decorative leaves and fruit. (We would not advise anyone to eat the leaves or stalks of tomato plants).
The French were convinced tomatoes had aphrodisiac properties and called them pommes d'amour or love apples.
It was not until the 19th Century that commercial tomato cultivation began. The first glasshouses were built in Kent and Essex time, after large-scale production of sheet glass was developed.
Tomatoes are now the most widely grown 'vegetable' in the world and are cultivated as far north as Iceland and as far south as the Falkland Islands. Tomato seedlings have even been grown in Space and tomato seeds, which spent six years circling the earth in a satellite, have been compared with others which had stayed at home. No significant differences were found in the growth of plants from the two lots of seed.
Did You Know?
In the UK, we eat 6oz (160g) of fresh tomatoes per person per week. This is the equivalent of two classic British tomatoes per week, or more than 100 per year - very low compared with other European countries, especially those in the Mediterranean region.