Italian Cooking and tomatoes?

I read somewhere that tomatoes were one of the vegetables that were brought from the New World to the Old. As I was eating pizza the other night, the thought occured to me: what did Italian cooks do before they had the tomato? It’s also odd that the Italians went gaga over the tomato in a way that other Europeans did not. Just wondering…

The potato was also a New World plant, and yet look at all the regional cooking (from Ireland to Poland) that depend upon it.

On the other hand, spaghetti sauce made from olives doesn’t require much stretch of the imagination. The ancient Romans probably used larks’ tongues.

Another item imported from the New World that made a big enough hit to be considered reflective of culture is paprika. What would Hungarian cookery be like without paprika? Yet it is a New World plant, and a relatively recent import.

Paprika was brought to Europe because of the price of salt. Paprika, like many other spices, was used as a substitute for salt. (Don’t get me wrong - these spices don’t taste like salt. They’re substitures because they can add enough flavor to make up for the lack of salt.) When it hit Europe, they found that the area around Hungary was best suited for growing the pepper plants.

That’s why the Hungarians went to ga-ga over paprika. It grew there. The English, with their lousy weather, wouldn’t be able to grow a lot of nice spices, so their food is on the bland side. Southeast Asia can grow all sorts of more tropical spices. Gee, you catching on to a pattern here? Tomatoes probably grew better in the Mediteranean climate of parts of Italy, though not all over. I say that because much regional Italian cuisine does not rely heavily on tomatoes.

Olives would be a good guess, too, on the Italian front. I know that much traditional Italian pizza has a breadlike crust, olive oil, and cheese. No tomatoes at all. (And since we’re talking Italians here, I’m more fascinated by the potato thing there. I think that the Italians introduced potatoes to England, and gnocchi is about all the proof I need that God exists. Hm…)

Besides the New World origins of tomatoes, potatoes, and spices, there are a baker’s couple of interesting points to be made here.

  1. Romans and Italians.

  2. Italians and Chinese.

  3. Pizza 'round the world.

  4. While in England, I bought a book that contained recipes selected and translated from a Roman original. Things like Boletus salad [mushrooms], leek casserole, and what was essentially haggis. It is of course possible that the English people who made that book selected only the recipes that were similar to their own, familiar cuisine, but I doubt it. What I find more likely is that Roman cuisine was essentially “European” cuisine, and that of all the former segments of the Empire, the most-peripheral British Isles were the most conservative and changed it the least after the fall of the Empire. (This would also fit with the idea that a smaller variety of foods grew in England, so there was less to experiment with.)

  5. Marco Polo and his ilk had a far larger impact on European culture than is generally recognized. Roman cuisine is EXTREMELY dissimilar to later Italian cuisine, as far as I can tell. On the other hand, if you watch an Italian cooking show with a Chinese cook you are likely to notice the Chinese cook nodding their head frequently and agreeing with the familiar THEORY behind Italian cuisine. The two are extremely similar (but only to a point, of course), far more so than French or German cuisine theory are similar to Italian cuisine. The noodles of course came directly from far Cathay, but tomato sauce probably developed later, after such things as alfredo or white sauce, fried meat toppings, and just olive oil.

  6. I think pizza, especially the original c.14th century version, is most similar to various Middle Eastern foods that involve olive oil and herbs on a flat bread. There is a northern Chinese dish that’s a bit similar, but I put that down to parallel evolution. But for those who have been to Japan it can be almost comical to go to a pizza place that isn’t an American chain restaurant. (I went to a Japanese franchise in Taiwan, but I assume the menu was identical.)

We have there the product of a cuisine that combined transmitted Chinese and Middle Eastern foods with New World produce, was then transmitted to North America where the barbarians there GASP put such things as MEAT on it (I have heard of native Italians who think that that is an unspeakable debasement, though I don’t know if that opinion is universally held), then made its way farther West to where the unspeakable devils put PINEAPPLE on it, and then crossed the ocean to where we get such toppings as mayonnaise, cuttlefish (essentially squid), and the “German Curry Deluxe,” which is potato, bacon, and curry powder. Mmm-mm!