Once the New Empire was being established in South-America many new agricultural products began to flow back to Europe. One of these was the tomato. "Tomatl" means plump fruit in the Aztec language and, indeed, it is a fruit. It was possibly brought back by Cortez in 1519. It was much smaller and yellow, and initially named by the Italians the "pomo d’oro" or golden apple.
The English were very slow to adopt it and thought it poisonous until the 1700's.
The Spanish were eager to spread the plant around the world and in the Caribbean established it on their plantations and also in the Philippines where it soon spread to East-Asia.
In 1885, a Brit named Mr. Blisse, arrived at Gran Canaria and planted the first tomato seeds on Canarian soil. Soon the entire archipelago followed this initiative.
The tomato is actually a fruit and has been classified as such by an E.U Directive of 2001, although it is classified as a vegetable for tax purposes in the U.S.A. The Canarian tomato is popular for its particular flavour - due to the volcanic soil - and for its high resistance to transport and drops in temperature.
Every year in Brunyol near to Valencia there is a festival called the Tomatina where the crowd of 40.000 throw tomatoes for an hour. It started in 1945 after some youths pelted a carnival procession. It was banned by the council but gained popularity and is a major tourist attraction. There are a few rules but generally you get pelted and pelt back until the signal to stop and the fire brigade hose it all down.
It belongs to the same family of Solanoceae, as potatoes, eggplants, tobacco and chilli plants and Deadly Nightshade. There are now more than 7500 different varieties worldwide. When ripe the tomato is very nutritious and a valuable source of vitamins A, B and C, E, K, Potassium, Iron and natural sugars. When it is green and unripe it contains the toxin "Tomatine". It has some amazing properties and is the subject of much research. When infected by pests, it produces a hormone, "Systemin" that actually stops the insect’s growth and lessens the effect of the attack. The tomato's high levels of vitamins and minerals are best liberated by making sauces. Recent studies have revealed that the tomato has a very potent anti-cancer component, called "Lypocene", which significantly helps to prevent cancer of prostate and breast. Diabetic patients have to watch their consumption of tomato.
The tomato grows well with 7 hrs of sun a day and so it came to the Canaries. The volcanic soil and abundant sun means the plant will thrive in our climate.
For many years it was a useful food source and a cash crop but unfortunately it requires a lot of water and the cost began to rise until it became too difficult to compete with cheaper producers. The cost of harvest per kilo is 10 cents here but just 1 cent in Morocco as salaries here are 7 times higher than in Morocco. The water supply is a major problem too. However with better access to the water supply, old farms that once relied on wells and pumps may well be able to thrive again.
The soil here gives the fruit a particular flavour that is preferred in many European markets and our own tiny tom or canary tomatoes have been a winter treat for 120 years. The output of the Canaries has fallen from a historical high end 20th century of 360.000 tons to a mere 200.000 tons in 2007. Major reasons for this drop were competition, premature maturation due to higher temperatures and a disease, called "virus de la cuchara". With a turnover of 200.000.000€ p.a. the tomato represents one third of the entire agricultural income of the archipelago. About 80% of the harvest is for export, mainly to Europe.
The main area of production in Fuerteventura can be found in the Pajara region and Tiscamanita. The port at Gran Tarajal was once the main port for export but now it is the capital of Puerto del Rosario.
There was once a massive farm or Tomateria in Tindaya which was a major employer of the village for many years. Especially for the teenagers who now as old men can tell you all about it,( and complain of the 5km walk there and back first thing in the morning and last thing at night). The remains are still clear to see. This farm, as many others, was hit with the rising costs and forced to close.
Recently though, many of the old fields all over the island are being prepared for farming again as rising prices around Europe make it viable once more. So maybe the new economy will be agricultural based.
Bernie & Michel