Celebrating the Humble British Tomato

By Elizabeth Atia

Tomatoes are an incredibly versatile, nutritious and delicious ingredient, but did you know that up until thelate 1800s they were considered poisonous?

The seeds for this fruit were brought back from Mesoamerica in the late 1500s. In fact, the English word ‘tomato’ is derived from the Aztec word for the fruit, ‘tomatl’, and it is thought that they were cultivated by the Incas and Aztecs as early as 700 AD.

Up until the late 19th century tomatoes, also known as ‘poison apples’, were grown in British gardens for purely ornamental purposes because of their decorative leaves and fruit. It wasn’t until around 1880, with the creation of the pizza in Naples, did tomatoes become more popular in home kitchens.

In America, in 1897, fruit merchant Joseph A. Campbell discovered that tomatoes could be preserved by canning, and he created the condensed tomato soup which is still so popular today.

Now, tomatoes are one of the most popular ingredients in the world, used in a wide variety of cuisines, and they are well-known for their health benefits.

Tomatoes are a major dietary source of the antioxidant lycopene, renowned for its cardioprotective and anti-cancer properties. They are also a significant source of vitamin C, potassium, folate and vitamin K.

A versatile ingredient, tomatoes are used raw in a wide variety of salads; my favouriteis to thickly slice a variety of different tomatoes (red, yellow and orange) and serve them with thinly sliced red onion, finely chopped garlic and a drizzle of good quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar. They’re also used in soups, stews, sauces and curries.

Tomatoes pair well with vinegar, avocado, bacon, eggs, beef, olives, cheese and even chocolate! Try adding a square of good quality dark chocolate to your next batch of chilli and you’ll see what I mean.

Tomatoes taste better when they are vine-ripened and served at room temperature. The best way to make a tomato taste terrible is to keep them in the fridge. Refrigeration, although it does prolong their shelf life, reduces the levels of volatile chemicals which contribute to the flavourand fragrance of tomatoes.

With regards to storage, perfectly ripe tomatoes should be kept at room temperature on the counter top away from direct sunlight, but over-ripe ones can be kept in the fridge for a few days to prolong their life.

Did you know that you can also eat green tomatoes? Fried green tomatoes, a side dish from the Southern United States, is one of my favourite ways to use up green tomatoes. Thickly slice your green tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, dip in beaten egg and then dredge them in cornmeal before frying in bacon fat until golden on each side. Dipped in soured creamfried green tomatoes are utterly delicious.

Another of my favourite ways to use up a glut of green tomatoes is in a piccalilli style pickle that my mother used to make, known as Cape Breton Chow Chow.

Cape Breton Chow Chow Recipe


2.5 lbs green tomatoes

6 small cucumbers

2 sweet red or green peppers

1 small cauliflower

1 bunch celery

2 lbs small white onions

1 lb green beans, cut into 1 inch lengths

3/4 cup salt

2 quarts apple cider vinegar

2.5 cups white sugar

2 tbsp celery seed

3 tbsp dry mustard

4 tbsp turmeric

1 tbsp allspice (whole)

1 tbsp whole peppercorns

1 tbsp whole cloves

5 tbsp plain flour


1. Cut the tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cauliflower and celery into small pieces and place in a large bowl.

2. Add the onions and green beans.

3. Cover with 3 quarts of boiling water and the salt and leave to stand for one hour.

4. Drain and rinse well in cold water and then drain again.

5. Mix the remaining ingredients (except flour) in a large pot and heat to the boiling point.

6. Add the vegetables and cook mixture until tender, stirring frequently.

7. Dissolve flour in a little bit of cider vinegar and add to the pot, stirring constantly until it thickens.

8. Spoon into hot sterilized jars leaving 1/8 inchheadspace and seal.

Elizabeth Atia

Mum, daydream adventurer, ex-pat Canadian & quite possibly Britain's most northerly award-winning food blogger. Calls Shetland home. https://www.elizabethskitchendiary.co.uk/

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