Although the Aztecs and Incas of the Americas had cultivated tomatoes since 700 C.E., their acceptance in Europe took centuries longer.
First discovered by the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortez in 1521 as he smashed the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan (later renamed Mexico City) into submission, it took another century for the tomato to appear in coastal Spain.
At first this culinary treasure from the New World was rejected by Europe’s chefs as it was erroneously associated with the dreaded mandrake and nightshade plants. Both plants were considered favorites of witches and poisoners. Ouch!
But sometimes beauty wins out as it did in this case. A bright red, orange and green, tomatoes became a sought after accent for the centerpieces of the French aristocrats. But only for décor, not as part of la cuisine noble.
But there are always those, both rich and poor, who make their own decisions whether political or culinary. In the southern French region of Provence, country chefs and cooks slowly discovered from the Spanish and Italians how exquisite the tomato actually tasted. And no one died!
Searching for a sauce name, these regional chefs remembered that the tomato seeds had arrived from the Americas via boat so it seemed appropriate to title the new creation a “mainara sauce” from the Italian language meaning “of the sea”.
Meanwhile in Paris there was an amazing man, a true gentleman of the Enlightment Era – the American Thomas Jefferson.
A true renaissance man whose interested seemed to have no bounds, he was fascinated by all matters culinary and agricultural.
We know that on returning to his newly born nation, he grew tomatoes at his much loved Monticello estate. His beloved daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, included many tomato recipes in her personal cookbook, including the soup recipe listed below. Sadly at the same time, disorder and terror gripped France as a violent class war tore through the nation.
As blood began run in the streets of Paris until it was a torrent, the new ruling class now wore red "Phrygian" liberty caps as a symbol of their loyalty to change, violent or otherwise.
France’s skilled professional chefs, who once worked largely for the nobility, were at this time seeking not only new employment, but also how to keep their heads while others were losing their's. What better way to appear patriotic then to echo the revolution’s favorite red color in cuisine?
And what was redder than a fresh red tomato! Soon the tomato was the darling of Paris chefs – saving many a sauce and an equal number of talented chefs! And the rest, as they say, is culinary history. Bon appetit!
Jefferson’s Truly Revolutionary French Tomato Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
28 ounces fire-roasted diced tomatoes
28 ounces fire-roasted crushed tomatoes
3 cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried basil
1/4 teaspoon cayenne or to taste
8 cloves roasted garlic
2 tablespoons minced parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
1 or 2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons plain yogurt
Sauté onion and celery in olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. When onion is translucent, add the tomatoes, broth, oregano, basil, and cayenne. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low heat for 10 minutes.
Transfer half of the soup to the blender, add the roasted garlic, and purée until fairly smooth. If you'd like a chunky soup, add the blended half back to the pot. For a smoother soup, blend the rest of the soup and return it to the pot. Add the parsley and salt and pepper to taste, and simmer for about 10 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Taste the soup, and if too acidic, add sugar. Serve with a tablespoon of yogurt stirred into each bowl.
Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2011