‘Love apple’ grows up

'Love apple' grows up
Ynet news.com - April 17, 2005
By Ruthie Keenan

Israeli kitchens are not complete without star of vegetable salad.

It’s difficult to imagine kitchens in the world, and especially those in the country and the rest of the Mediterranean, without tomatoes.

The tomato is queen of the Israeli salad , princess of Italian pasta and pizza sauce and the beloved of meats and seafood of Spain, Provence, Greece and Turkey.

But this was not always the case. The tomato earned its place on the European dining table not more than 200 years ago.

People in the Western half of the globe were unaware it even existed before Columbus arrived in America.

Even today the tomato continues to surprise, and right here in the Negev region, the fruit is flourishing in soil and water with high concentrations of salt.

First fruits in Peru

The world’s first tomatoes most likely grew where Peru and Ecuador are located today, and northward to Mexico. The Aztecs, who grew the early version of tomatoes, called them "tomatil."

The Spanish encountered the unknown fruit there and returned it to Europe in the 16th century.

The fact that the varieties they brought were yellow is probably the source of the name that stuck to them - "pomogora," which means “golden apple” in Italian.

It was altered by the Spanish and French to “Pomme D’amora” - apple of love, and from this originated its Hebrew name - “agvania,” which closely resembles “agav,” which means “to lust for.”

The Spanish ate tomatoes just as they do today, with oil and vinegar, but the fruit’s popularity didn’t take off immediately. Growers in other parts of Europe grew the shrub for ornamental purposes alone. Health experts issued warnings about the fruit, which was thought to be poisonous.

The golden tomato would have been forgotten had it not been for the initiative of two Italian monks who brought the red seed from South America and grew it in their courtyard in the 18th century.

It was there in southern Italy the red tomato had its real first success, especially among the poor.

Sauce in Naples monastery

Tomato sauce appears in writing for the first time in a book written in 1778 by the head of the Naples monastery, who recommended it as an accompaniment to meat and fish - but not yet for pasta or pizza.

The 19th century was the big century for tomatoes. They won recognition throughout the world and French monks brought them to Israel for the first time.

In the 20th century already it was already impossible to remember how kitchens appeared without them.

In the Israeli kitchen

Try to conceive how it was to come to the Israeli kitchen without the star of the vegetable salad, Israeli dishes such as shakshuka and the wickedly spicy schug, or the fruit’s essential derivatives of tomato paste and juice, not to mention such rising starlets as the cherry, cocktail and dried tomatoes.

Its hundreds of varieties allow the tomato a starring role yearround, and to be appropriate for every purpose.

The large corpulent varieties are best for cooking, while the smaller juicy ones are used for salads and uncooked dishes.

At the end of the 1970s it was decided that agriculture in the Habasor region of the Western Negev would be based on tomatoes grown in hothouses. The intent was to produce tomatoes for the European market during the winter season.

The Habasor Ranch was founded by the Jewish National Fund’s southern branch of research and development.

It was called upon to find practical solutions for structures and new residents in the region following the evacuation of the Sinai community of Yamit, in accordance with the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

Many vegetables and about 40 percent of seasoning herbs and salad leaves came to the Israeli market from here.

Most tomatoes go to local markets

Hothouses that cover some 250 acres produce 15,000 tons of tomatoes annually in the Ramat Hanegev region.

Most of them are sent to local markets, while special varieties are sold at high prices around the world.

The tomatoes sent to Europe prompted an upheaval in the world market, with varieties having a long shelf life. This advantage was exploited for many years, until it was repelled by competition from countries like Spain and Morocco.

As a result, the local tomato sector returned home to seek
customers in Israel, and southern research and development was called on to find new advantages that fit the local market.

It turned out that the Israeli market was thirsty for new types of tomatoes.

Thus were born cherry, cocktail and miniature tomatoes; clusters of tomatoes of different sizes, and the elongated plum tomatoes, which are especially popular among immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

One of Israel’s big successes is the growth of tomatoes in water containing high concentrations of salt.

It turns out that the tomatoes actually benefit from the water unfit for drinking because the salt encourages the creation of sugar in the fruit.

The water shortage and cost of fertilizers has also led to recycling technology that reuses water containing fertilizer chemicals.

Another development currently in the experimental stages is dried tomatoes on the shrub. These will be cut from the vine after they are dried.

The growing popularity of organic agriculture is also leading to developments in modern technologies intended to cut the use of pesticides in favor of biological methods.