Photo: Katie Alexander
William Alexander’s Digs into the Tomato’s Origins and Surprise! It’s Not From Italy
In an excerpt from "Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World," the author visits Leamington, Ont., home to a tasty little golf ball of a fruit called the Campari / BY Kim Honey / June 30th, 2022
Who knew that the ubiquitous tomato, the subject of many debates over its classification and pronunciation, was – like the potato – indigenous to Peru?
Bestselling American author William Alexander is astonished to discover the fruit he assumed was native to Italy originated in the South American countries of Peru and Ecuador, and was cultivated by the Aztecs in Mexico for at least 1,000 years before the Spanish conquistadores arrived. They ferried the tomato from Mexico to Spain, then on to Italy.
Alexander traces the tomato’s path from the New World to the Old and back again in his engrossing book, Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World, where he visits Pisa to see the kitchen where the first specimen documented in Italy was delivered to an amateur botanist, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1548. Although European cooks quickly adopted New World discoveries like maize and beans, the tomato developed a reputation as unhealthy at best, and poisonous at worst. It languished until the early 19th century, when it was embraced by Italian cooks and, after it was imported from Spain, a wealthy New Jersey horticulturalist.
The main ingredient in Alexander’s book is history, but he peppers it with witty asides. “I once used my newly acquired French to tell a waiter in a three-star Parisian restaurant, ‘I’ll have the ham in newspaper and my son will have my daughter,’” he writes, in a section about the etymological origins of “tomato,” the Spanish word for the round red fruit.
He delves into the fruit/vegetable quagmire (he calls it both); documents the tomato’s rise to supremacy in Italian cuisine; gives the backstory on how the tasteless, bland, under-ripe Florida tomato because the most consumed – and most reviled – fruit in North America; and explains how the 1978 film called Attack of the Killer Tomatoes preceded the cultivation of flavourful heirloom varieties like the Brandywine.
In the following excerpt from Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World, he travels in the dead of winter to Leamington, Ont., where the north shore of Lake Erie is blanketed with glowing greenhouses, and more than 4,800 acres of farmland is under glass. The greatest concentration of greenhouses in North America began, Alexander writes, with “the quest for a tastier tomato.” Here, he meets the farmer who produces a little golf ball of a tomato that has stormed the grocery-store shelves: the Campari.
Paul Mastronardi is a fourth-generation Leamington farmer whose family lays claim to the founding of Canada’s modern greenhouse industry. Their story, in so many ways the typical immigrant success tale, began when Paul’s great-grandfather Armando, a young, poor farmer, left his rural Italian village of Villa Canale in 1923, along with seven other compagni, a droplet in the wave of Italian migration that would swell the populations of not only eastern American cities, but of Montreal and Toronto as well.
The eight Italians made their way to Leamington, the southernmost point in Canada, where they found a thriving farming community blessed with good soil and mild winters, thanks to the presence of Lake Erie, the eleventh-largest body of fresh water on earth. A Heinz ketchup and pickle factory in town provided a reliable market for the farmers and steady jobs for the laborers. As word of the migrants’ success reached families and friends back in Villa Canale, a full one-third of the old village emptied out, following the eight trailblazers to southwest Ontario.
Armando became a successful tomato farmer, as did his son, Umberto, who, during a trip to Holland in the early 1940s, saw sophisticated greenhouses growing tomatoes for much of the year, not just the few months typical of an Ontario farm. Beginning a close relationship with the Dutch that continues to this day, Umberto brought the technology home, his neighbors soon followed suit, and this unlikely town of Italians and Mennonites (who’d similarly emigrated from Russia at around the same time) was on its way to becoming a world greenhouse superpower.
“I never wanted to go into the family business,” says Umberto’s grandson Paul, forty-six, adding that he never really cared much for tomatoes either. But after majoring in math and physics in college, he told his father, who’d taken over the company from Umberto, that he’d return to the roost under one condition: that they would think big. Very big. By building not more green- houses, but larger greenhouses. Size, he felt, was the key to profit- ability. So, at a time when the typical new greenhouse covered five acres, Paul, using Dutch technology and personnel, built the largest greenhouse in North America, a fifty-acre behemoth.
He filled it with tomatoes, to mixed results. Mastronardi, while visiting his customers, heard a refrain familiar to Florida growers: His tomatoes had no flavor. So he flew to Holland in search of a better tomato. At the Dutch seed giant Enza Zaden he found a variety, “this oddball size fruit that was the size of a golf ball. It tasted good, but it didn’t fit any markets that are out there. It was just weird. But since it tasted outstanding, we said, ‘Well, this is what people are looking for, something that tastes like the tomato of the past, that has flavor.’ And you know, the good thing about greenhouses protecting the crop, you can grow varieties that are a little more finicky or aren’t as hardy because they don’t have to take on the elements. And so, we brought the variety over in ’94 and started experimenting with it.”
Test crops were successful, but Mastronardi needed a way to distinguish his new cultivar from all the other tomatoes out there. In a supermarket, after all, fresh tomatoes are anonymous, unlike canned tomatoes, which are, he realized, branded. So Mastronardi branded his golf ball-sized tomatoes with a catchy, Italian-sounding name suggesting friendship: Campari.
The diminutive, expensive Campari was a bust for several years, attracting more attention from lawyers for its namesake aperitif than from consumers. (Mastronardi successfully fended off a copyright lawsuit.) But watercooler talk kept it alive among tomato aficionados and when, somehow – Mastronardi swears to have been as surprised as anyone – a package of Campari tomatoes started showing up on HBO in the kitchen of Tony Soprano, a little puff of wind filled the Campari sails. The press got curious, foodies started gushing over it, and the Campari was on its way to success, despite its cost.
“I hear it’s the most expensive tomato seed in the world,” I say to Mastronardi.
“It’s up there.”
“Like, $150,000 a pound for seeds.”
He won’t say, of course, other than to point out, “I can tell you that if you walked out of here with a briefcase full of Campari seeds, it would be worth several hundred thousand dollars.” In other words, Campari seeds are literally worth more – far more – than their weight in gold.
Excerpted from the book Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World by William Alexander. Copyright © 2022 by William Alexander. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.