A few years ago in Romania, I had a tomato salad that reminded me of how tomatoes are supposed to taste. I had forgotten. The tomatoes in my salad had most likely been grown in soil, outdoors - with the benefit of Mediterranean sun and heat - and been harvested only hours or at most days before I had the pleasure of eating them. At home in Germany and the UK, most of the tomatoes I’d eaten in the years before this experience had come from supermarkets. They’d most likely been grown in greenhouses, without actual soil, but fibrous substitutes. They may have been picked prematurely and ripened “off the vine”. This allows for transport over long distances and for storage, which ripe tomatoes would survive for very long. Whilst there are hundreds of different varieties, the most common ones are not grown for flavour, but even size, shape and looks. The way tomatoes are commercially grown changed slowly over the years, and before I knew it I had forgotten what real tomatoes taste like.
So, what’s the best we can do, if we do not live on the Mediterranean shores and don’t have the space or inclination to grow our own? On the EWG's (Environmental Working Group) list of the most and least pesticide laden foods, tomatoes are currently at number 32 (of 48 tested foods). That’s not bad and it means that you can fairly happily go for non-organic tomatoes. Be aware, however, that cherry tomatoes are on number 10 and therefore within the “Dirty Dozen”.
The supermarket’s cheapest tomatoes may not be the best, but mass produced, watery, evenly shaped and pretty looking tomato impostors. That said, shelling out a lot of money for the “deluxe” versions on the vine, in small quantities and wrapped in lots and lots of plastic doesn’t guarantee quality either. For the best tomatoes money can buy, go to the market or your local greengrocer. As they don’t buy vast quantities, they are able to purchase varieties you wouldn’t find in a supermarket, and you are even likely to pay much less.
First of all: Buy them when in season only. The British season is from June to October. Outside side of this time, they can only be grown as described above and they won’t be all that nice anyway. In the winter, you may want to use tomato paste or passata instead. Within season, go for plump, fully coloured tomatoes that are firm and not bruised. At home, wash them in a white vinegar and water solution to get rid of any pesticide residue (here’s how) and then store them at room temperature in a worm dry place, in a paper bag if you would like them to ripen further.
You probably already that tomatoes came to Europe from Mexico shortly after Columbus landed in the West Indies. The Spanish conquistadores brought the seeds over with them. What is less known is that the lovely red fruit was long thought of as poisonous, as the tomato is related to the deadly nightshade, and indeed: tomato leaves contain toxic alkaloids, so don’t add them to your salads, but as we now know, the fruit is not. So, in Europe, we only started eating tomatoes about 200 years ago.
Tomatoes are a good source of vitamin C, carotenes - especially lycopene -, biotin and Vitamin K. They also supply several B vitamins and fibre. Their most famous health benefit is certainly lycopene: It has been found to be protective against, breast, prostate, colon and lung cancer and has been shown to lover the risk of heart disease. Lycopene is also what makes the tomato red, so there is more in red tomatoes than, say, yellow ones, and the riper the tomato, the higher its lycopene content. While processing - such as cooking - destroys some of the vitamin content, especially vitamin C, it does in fact increase lycopene levels up to five-fold. Adding fat, for example olive oil, greatly enhances absorption. So, don’t turn up your nose to tinned tomatoes (but see below), tomato paste and puree, tomato juice or passata. It’s all good!
As mentioned above, the tomato belongs to the nightshade family, along with peppers, aubergines, potatoes and chilli. There is anecdotal evidence that joint pain - especially in osteoarthritis - was reduced or disappeared when sufferers cut out vegetables of the nightshade family. While this is yet to be scientifically proven, it won’t do any harm to try and see if it makes a difference for you. Be aware, however, that you need to be meticulous and that it may take at least six weeks for symptoms to subside. Worth a try though.
Another downside of tomatoes is that they may weaken the oesophageal sphincter, a ring-shaped muscle that separates your stomach from your oesophagus. It opens to allow food into your stomach, but then closes tightly to keep stomach acid where it belongs. If you suffer from frequent acid reflux, keep a food diary to see whether it occurs after eating tomatoes.
And then there are tinned tomatoes … They are preserved through cooking - which does increase their lycopene content and would make them a great source of said carotene in the winter - and then stored in tins. If those tins are not lined with plastic, the acid from the tomatoes can make metal molecules leach into the tomatoes, which would affect their taste and you may not want metal in your food either. Most tins, however, are plastic lined, but that’s not great either, as again the acid can cause bisphenol A (BPA) from the plastic to leach into the tomatoes. BPA is a xenoestrogen - a foreign oestrogen - which can have a similar, but stronger, effect as natural oestrogen. You’re better off without it. See if you can find tomatoes or tomato paste in jars rather than tins.
Every summer, I buy a few kilos of tomatoes, leave them at room temperature for a few days, then chop them up and cook them in my largest (stainless steel - you don’t want aluminium for tomatoes) pot and then spoon them still hot into sterilised jars, which I close immediately. This stash, perhaps topped up with passata from glass jars, happily sees me through the winter.