Tomatoes: From poisonous plant to favourite sandwich filling

Tomatoes are a versatile summer friendly fruit

Tomatoes are a versatile summer friendly fruit - Credit: Archant

Frances Bissell explores the versatility of the tomato, through picnics, poison and pudding.

It is so difficult to imagine summer without tomatoes, that one almost thinks of them as being indigenous rather than imports from the New World.

The use of the tomato became widespread in southern European kitchens by the late sixteenth century, but two hundred years later, it was still being sold as an ornamental plant in the catalogues of Parisian seed merchants.

It wasn’t until the revolutionaries from Marseille arrived in Paris in 1793 that tomatoes really entered the French culinary repertoire, quickly popularised by clever Provençal chefs.

In Britain the tomato was held in great suspicion by the Elizabethans as a poisonous plant. It is, after all, a member of the solanacae family, to which the highly toxic belladonna or deadly nightshade also belongs.

America didn’t take to the tomato until the early 19th century, when it was first eaten in Salem, Massachussetts.

By the middle of that century, sheet glass production was commercially viable marking the beginning of large scale tomato cultivation under glass.

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This is still the preferred method of British tomato growers.

New technology, poly tunnels and methods of disease control mean you can now source tomatoes all year round.

Yet the bulk of the crop comes on to the market in summer and our local farmers’ markets are curently full of them, in every shade of red, orange, yellow, green and striped.

This is the time for experimenting with tomato ices, tomato and fruit soups, herb and tomato pasta sauces, tomatoes with exotic stuffings, vegetable stews as well as combining tomatoes with courgettes, peppers and aubergines like the Provençale ratatouille, Spain’s pisto manchego and the Mallorquin tumbet.

Tomato juice for breakfast or tomato jam and chutney is also a very popular.

Best of all, slice them, sprinkle with sea salt and olive oil, and heap on a slice of chewy bread, that you have first rubbed with a cut garlic clove.

Variations of this are to be found all over the Mediterranean, from the pan bagnat of Provence,and the pa amb oli of Mallorca and Catalunya, to the Maltese hobz biz zeit.

Bread and tomatoes is a winning combination, inexpensive, refreshing and good to eat any time of day.

Tomato sandwiches, remembered from childhood picnics, still remain one of my favourite foods along with juicy grilled tomatoes on toast.

Tomatoes ripen very quickly. Placing just one ripe fruit into a bowl of green tomatoes will cause them to ripen. Unripened they can also make a spicy chutney.

When a recipe calls for the addition of lemon juice, I have occasionally used the juice suspended in the pulp from around the seeds. This ‘tomato water’ is a popular chefs’ ingredient, clear and intense in flavour.

It has a very agreeable acidity - more neutral than that of lemon and lime - which makes it particularly useful for marinating raw fish, as in ceviche.

Basil is the classic partner for tomatoes, but I also love fresh mint in a tomato salad, or use wild fennel, tarragon and chives.

Crushed cardamom seeds, too, are surprisingly good in a tomato salad, as are chopped lovage leaves, summer savory and hyssop.

To skin, or not to skin tomatoes? If you are using them uncooked or briefly cooked, or if you are sieving them of course, there is no need to skin them.

If you are cooking the tomatoes slowly, I recommend skinning them, otherwise it will gradually loosen, detach and roll itself into a tight little quill, not very digestible or pleasant to eat.

Today’s recipe uses ripe, raw, un-peeled tomatoes in one of my favourite summer dishes.

For greatest effect, make it in a traditional pudding basin. It turns out as a savoury summer pudding, and is based on a recipe first described by the late Jennifer Paterson over thirty years ago.

Tomato Pudding


1.5 kg sweet ripe tomatoes

12 - 15 slices, medium cut, firm white bread with the crusts removed

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

Sherry vinegar

Basil leaves – optional


Peel the tomatoes, and cut them in half. Scoop out the seeds, juice and pulp and process with the skins, together with two or three tomato halves. Chop the remaining tomato flesh, and put it in a bowl. Rub the pulp, seeds and skins through a sieve to extract maximum juice and flavour. Pour half the resulting liquid on to the chopped tomatoes. Taste the mixture, and then add just enough salt and pepper to season. Mix in some torn up basil if liked. Season the remaining tomato liquid with salt and pepper to taste.

Cut the bread into wedges, dip into the tomato liquid, and line a large pudding basin. Spoon in the chopped tomato, and cover with more sliced and dipped bread. Cover the pudding with cling film, stand it in a shallow soup plate, weight it, and refrigerate for six to eight hours or overnight. To serve, turn out on to a chilled platter, decorate with herbs, and serve with a tomato vinaigrette flavoured with sherry vinegar. Accompany with steamed summer vegetables and boiled, shelled quail eggs.

(Serves 6 to 8)