Tuesday, 27 August 2013

All the way from America

Hot lemon chilli peppers, descended through the generations from the chilli peppers grown by the Aztecs since around 3,500BC.
This looks like being a bumper year for tomatoes, peppers, sweetcorn, pumpkins and other popular summer vegetables. We think of these and also crops such as runner beans as being an essential part of our summer eating, yet all of these only arrived in Europe and Asia after the Spanish conquest of the Americas. It's hard to imagine Indian or Thai cuisine without chilli, or Italian dishes without tomatoes, but they are comparatively new arrivals. Especially when you consider that the Aztecs in Mexico or the Mayans in central and south America have been cultivating chillies since at least 3500BC, if not earlier.
Mayan Gold potato plants growing in the UK.
Potatoes for example, originate in the highlands of Peru, and weren't discovered until some decades after the first landfall in America by Europeans. Once potatoes were brought across and planted in the Old World, probably at first in the Canary Islands, before being transported to Antwerp in Belgium and the Spanish mainland, they were planted as a subsistence crop. The climate in northern Europe was colder than normal at this time, thanks to the 'little ice age' and potatoes grew better in the cool conditions than the more traditionally grown grain crops.
Tigerella tomatoes ripening outside.
Tomatoes fared less well on their introduction to Spain, and then Italy, in the early 1500s after the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes found them being cultivated in Mexico. People were convinced they were poisonous, probably because of their obvious similarity to the nightshade plants (also in the Solanum family) and grew them as ornamental bushes rather than edible crops.

In contrast, Europeans took to chillies enthusiastically - perhaps because they were already used to spiced food thanks to the spice trade with India and the East, or conversely, perhaps because many people felt that their bland diet needed pepping up. The Spanish and Portuguese took these new fiery fruits to the Middle East and India via the Silk Road in the early 1500s, where they were embraced and integrated rapidly with the existing cuisines. From Arabia, this new spice was returned in the opposite direction to central Europe, where it became central to Hungarian cuisine as paprika.
  • Tomatoes have been variously named as the 'edible wolf peach' - this is how its original botanical name, Lycopersicon esculentum, translates, or 'golden apple', pomo d'oro. It was also known as pomme d'amour, the love apple, in France where the fruit was thought to have aphrodisiac properties.
  • Although tomatoes came from the East to Europe and Asia, ketchup is of Chinese origin. This pickled sauce came west with sailors in the 1600s, and a tomato version was first created in Europe in the 1700s.
  • Tomatoes were discovered in Mexico and south America and not grown in north America until the 1700s, and even then probably as ornamentals at first. The British and north Americans were slow to realise that the fruits were edible, while the first Italian tomato recipe - for a tomato sauce - was published in 1692.
Hubbard Large Blue pumpkin

Nearly every vegetable and fruit originating from the Americas has a fascinating story behind it. If you'd like to find out more about how we started eating and learning to love peppers, squash, pumpkins, beans, sweet potatoes and even more exotic produce such as tomatillos and melon pears, come along to the Secret Garden Club on Sunday September 1st where we'll be discussing Food From The Americas. Tickets are just £30, and this will include the garden tour plus a delicious American-themed meal created by the award-winning MsMarmiteLover.

Food From the Americas starts at 2pm on Sunday September 1st - more details and booking here. Bring your own alcohol.
Clockwise from top: Black Russian and Tigerella tomatoes, Pimientos de Padron,
Lady Christl and Salad Blue potatoes, borlotti beans - developed and cultivated in Europe, but
descended from varieties from central and South America.