Canned Tomato Taste Test Results

The results of our first blind taste test of 16 canned tomatoes have been posted on Slice! We tried a variety of tomatoes from local grocery stores, supermarkets, pizzerias and restaurant supply stores. Tasters include Roberto Caporuscio (Keste), Adam Kuban (Slice), Brooks Jones (Me, Myself and Pie), Jason Fierman (I Dream of Pizza), Nick Sherman (Pizza Rules) and tomato researcher Erica Mole.

Check Out The Results of Round 1

Italy Trip Part IV: Mozzarella di Bufala

Before setting out on this epic journey of epicurean delight, I listed my goals in order of importance. Of course I wanted to eat pizza in Napoli’s oldest establishments, explore the preserved bread ovens of Pompeii, investigate small-production San Marzano tomatoes and taste the best olive oil in the world. But above all these thing remained one activity that would make the others pale in comparison.

I wanted to milk a water buffalo.

Unlike the cows milk mozzarella we have come to know and enjoy here in the US, Campania’s use of the word “mozzarella” refers only to that which is made from the milk of a water buffalo (pictured below). This isn’t the same animal we call buffalo in the US, but an animal first introduced to Italy by knights of the crusade over 1000 years ago. In Campania, the phrase “fior di latte,” or flower of milk, is used when referring to cows milk mozzarella.

My quest began in Pizzeria Notizia with the extremely passionate pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia. Having already scheduled visits to Le Tore olive oil and Miracle of San Gennaro tomatoes, Enzo was able to put me in contact with Barbara Guerra, who he referred to as a journalist, although I later learned that she is in charge of marketing and agricultural tourism for the city of Paestum. We met with Barbara early in the morning for a day of touring several buffalo farms and dairies in Paestum, an agricultural town south of Salerno. Much like the rest of Southern Italy, Paestum is rich with ancient Greek ruins. In fact, the homes and temples in Paestum are among the best preserved in the world.

The first stop on our tour was Azienda Agricola Barlotti. This dairy produces fresh mozzarella di bufala, ficotta di bufala, yogurt, gelato and other products of rich buffalo milk. The process begins when milk is combined from both the morning and evening milk extractions. Barlotti also purchases buffalo milk from a neighboring farm to combine with that of his own cows so the product will be as rich in nutrients as possible. The milk is then separated into its liquids (whey) and solids (curd, pictured below).

The curd is submerged in hot water (roughly 165 degrees Fahrenheit) and pulled to evenly expose the curd to heat. This is a delicate process and requires an extremely high level of skill. Once the cheese has achieved the proper texture, bits are pulled off and pinched with the thumbs and index fingers. This creates a visible piece on the surface of the cheese, which lets you know that your mozzarella was pulled by hand. The pinching process is responsible for mozzarella’s name, which is derived from the Italian “mozzare,” or “to cut.”

The mozzarella is warm when it is freshly formed, but the flavor and texture require a bit more time. We were told to return in 3 – 4 hours if we wanted to purchase that morning’s fresh cheese. Luckily, a worker spotted my dismay and offered a warm, fresh ball of cheese. This bite-sized piece is referred to as bocnccini (pictured below). The flavor was rich but extremely tart. I’m glad we returned later in the day for some well-set mozzarella.

Our next stop was Rivabianca, another producer of water buffalo products. I was amazed at how beautifully all the employees worked together to produce and package this cheese. I was told that Paestum is knows for its artisanal approach to mozzarella production, whereas other cities tend to meet the high demand by industrializing their production lines. Mozzarella di bufala adheres to high standards of production and packaging so that people all over the world can enjoy the same quality found in Italy. This cheese is protected by the European Union as an artisanal product that must be produced and packaged in Campania. If these standards are met, the product is awarded a DOP certification, as indicated by the blue and yellow stamps on the packages below.

Water buffalo milk is higher in butterfat and carries a slightly richer taste than cows’ milk. Some countries, including the US, require the use of pasteurized milk, so the mozzarella di bufala we receive is chemically different from Italian cheese. The bulk of mozzarella production in Paestum is from March – August, with an incredible mozzarella celebration from late April through early May.

The buffalo themselves are incredibly docile creatures. They are quiet and sweet but their smell could be enough to prevent me from moving to Paestum. It became clear from the start of our buffalo education that none of the animals are milked by hand, so my dream would go unfulfilled. I may have fallen short of my loftiest goal, but the flavor of this incredible cheese was well worth the trip.

Italy Trip Part II: Fruits of Campania

Southern Italy is pizza territory. This is the place where pizzaioli are born into pizza-making families, raised with the highest level of appreciation of what has become their most valuable export. The ingredients that are essential to true neapolitan pizza are produced in the region around Naples called Campania. The area’s natural resources that lead to the birth of pizza are now protected by the European Union. I had the pleasure of meeting with several gastronomes (food lovers) who helped me to understand the incredible effort that goes into making a neapolitan pizza.

The first, and only meeting I had scheduled before boarding the plane to Italy, was with Enzo Coccia. Never before have I met a man so passionate (in a very serious way) about pizza and the traditions associated with the dish. Enzo owns Pizzeria La Notizia, which is located in an area outside of Napoli’s already pizza-packed central district. Besides operating the pizzeria, Enzo also runs Pizza Consulting, which provides a series of private courses in neapolitan pizza production. The course is extremely intense and detailed, so it is more popular with pizzaioli looking to improve their skills than home cooks looking for a cooking lesson. But I wasn’t there to learn how to make pizza. I was there to learn more about its ingredients!

(Enzo and me in the center, flanked by two Pizzeria La Notizia employees)

Before I could even ask a question about tomatoes, Enzo was on the phone with the owner of a San Marzano tomato company. Just as I was about to inquire about the region’s extra virgin olive oil, Enzo’s phone magically dialed a friendly olive grower. Within five minutes of phone calls, Enzo had fully booked the rest of my time in Italy with visits to various farms, orchards and dairies. If Enzo had his way, I probably would have had to push my flight back another week.

The first appointment was with Sabato Abagnale at Il Miracolo Di San Gennaro, a San Marzano tomato producer in the tiny town of Sant” Antonio Abate near Naples. San Marzanos are hearty plum tomatoes whose DOP status with the European Union gives them protection against “name fraud.” So a can of tomatoes bearing the name “San Marzano” must also bear the EU’s DOP stamp to indicate that it was grown according to strict standards in Campania. However the production at Il Miracolo Di San Gennaro do not conform to these standards because, unlike DOP tomatoes, they keep the skins on the fruit. Sabato explained that 85% of the flavor of a tomato is lost when the skin is removed.

I only wish I was visiting Sabato during tomato season (August – September) so I could witness the harvest. Unlike “industry” tomatoes, Sabato’s are harvested only when the fruits are ripe. Other producers mix over- and under-ripe tomatoes but Il Miracolo Di San Gennaro uses only ones that are a deep red. The popular strain of San Marzano DOP is actually a hybrid that makes them better suited for mass production. Sabato somehow managed to find the original strain, which is what you’ll get if you can track down this extremely rare brand of tomato ($10 – $15 per 28 oz. can in US).

We did a taste test to compare them with a a can of store-bought plum tomatoes.

On my way home, I managed to hop out of the cab at the front entrance to Pompeii, the ancient city buried by the 79 AD eruption of Mt Vesuvius. Enzo stressed the need to visit this historic site, which became obvious when I noticed this 2000 year old bread oven. It looks exactly like every brick oven I saw in Naples.

As much as I had learned about the revered San Marzano tomatoes of Campania, there were still quite a few products I needed to investigate. The road to extra virgin olive oil and mozzarella di bufala still remained untouched, but thanks to Enzo Coccia I was looking forward to more meetings with producers of Italy’s finest natural foods.