San Marzano Tomatoes: Fact vs. Fiction

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We’re nearing the end of tomato season, so why not discuss the most misunderstood tomato available? The single variety with the highest degree of name recognition is clearly the San Marzano. Heralded by chefs and home cooks alike, this bittersweet pear-shaped fruit has found its way onto food obsessives’ lists of buzz words. Yet somehow a cloud of mystery surrounds the San Marzano, with plenty of myths and legends to make even the simplest of ingredients sound intriguing. Let’s scrape away the hearsay and take a look at the facts behind pizza’s most popular pomodoro.

FICTION:
The San Marzano tomato arrived in Naples as a gift from the King of Peru in the early 1700s.

FACT:
Strange fruits arrived in the Spanish colony of Southern Italy by the mid 16th century. The tomato was one of the specimens brought back from the New World but it most certainly was not the San Marzano. Artwork from the time depicts only large, round, furrowed tomatoes unlike the long, slender, pear-shaped San Marzano. While Peru is accepted as the origin point for tomatoes, they were more likely first cultivated in Mexico because more tomato varieties are in use there.

FICTION:
The San Marzano is a pure-blood ancient heirloom variety that has been used in Italian cooking for centuries.

FACT:
After its introduction to Europe, the tomato was grown as an ornamental fruit. It makes its first culinary appearance in a 1692 cookbook as a base for a sauce recipe. The San Marzano itself doesn’t show up until much later. According to a tomato manual published in 1940, the San Marzano is listed as a “recent cross” between the Re Umberto and Fiaschetto varieties.


A late 19th century drawing of the Re Umberto tomato, named for King Umberto I.

FICTION:
The San Marzano tomato adorned the historic mozzarella and tomato pizza that was served to Queen Margherita in the Summer of 1889.

FACT:
The pizza served to the queen, which later received her name, was more likely topped with the tomato that was named in honor of her husband. The Re Umberto tomato was named for King Umberto in 1878 ion the occasion of his first visit to Naples. This tomato is smaller and more plump than the San Marzano. So why is the San Marzano listed as a requirement on VPN pies? As you’ll read below, its current form is better suited for industrial canning. [Note: San Marzanos are not a requirement for Pizza Margherita TSG, the European Union’s protective seal for traditionally crafted foods.]


FICTION:
The San Marzano is grown for fresh use in Italy and we are lucky to get cans of it here in the USA.

FACT:
One of the earliest literary references to the San Marzano appears in the 1894 USDA Agricultural Yearbook in an article titled “Redesigning the Tomato for Mechanized Production.” With the growing diaspora of Southern Italian immigrants who demanded goods from the mother country, the canning industries in both Italy and the US exploded to fill the demand. Prohibitive tariffs on imported tomatoes allowed American canneries to claim a huge amount of business. A Brooklyn woman named Tillie Lewis saw an opportunity and teamed up with Florindo Del Gaizo, a Naples-born tomato importer, to bring San Marzano seeds to California’s San Joaquin Valley. They opened a cannery in the 1930s and eventually became the country’s 5th largest. The San Marzano is excellent for canning because of its relatively low moisture content and thick flesh. It’s safe to say this variety wouldn’t have a life without the American canning industry.


FICTION:
All San Marzanos are grown on the volcanic slopes of Mt Vesuvius.

FACT:
As Adam Kuban wrote in a recent post for the pizza blog Slice, San Marzano refers both to a tomato variety and a small town on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius. A tomato grown in the EU-approved region and handled in the proper manner is eligible for DOP certification (or Protected Designation of Origin in English). Not all tomatoes grown in the approved area are actually certified, but the stamp certifies the geography and production methods approved by the European Union. At the same time, you can grow the San Marzano variety in your garden and, even though it might taste better than any canned tomato you’ve ever had, you still aren’t eligible for DOP bragging rights.


FICTION:
All DOP San Marzano tomatoes are grown on the volcanic slopes of Mt Vesuvius.

FACT:
If the DOP mark was upheld, the above would be a true statement. Unfortunately, the incredible value of this mark on a can of tomatoes has encouraged quite a few Italian canners to falsely label their products to justify DOP markups. In 2010 alone, nearly 500,000 cans of counterfeit tomatoes were caught at the port of Naples. Trust your taste buds, not a label.

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Miracle of San Gennaro tomatoes.

FICTION:
Correctly labeled San Marzano DOP tomatoes are the purest San Marzano tomatoes available.

FACT:
Widespread blight pretty much knocked out the San Marzano tomato in the 1970s, forcing canning companies to produce more disease-resistant hybrids. Interest increased in the 1990s, and several companies tried to recapture the genetic code to the lost tomato. Two cultivars prevailed, the Cirio Selection 3 and the SMEC-20 (aka San Marzano 2). Unfortunately, neither have been been deemed fit for mechanical harvesting but the SMEC-20 is currently in use by Sabato Abagnale and his Miracle of San Gennaro brand. Abagnale is a real tomato rebel because he doesn’t remove the tomato skins as required by DOP regulations. When I visited Sabato in 2009, he told me that much of the flavor is in the skin and he refuses to remove them. In reality, the SMEC-20 isn’t in wide production because it falls apart easily without the skin to hold it together.

Just a few weeks ago, I held a blind tomato tasting at the Brooklyn Brainery. We tasted a variety of products from Italy, California, Canada and New Jersey. The vast majority of our group preferred the tomatoes from California and New Jersey over the Italian imports. We even tried some DOP and Miracle of San Gennaro tomatoes, the latter of which hailed $10 for a 28 oz can! It’s too bad because those cans came in last, way behind the more available and cost-effective options available at my neighborhood grocery store. I don’t mean to say these tomatoes are necessarily better, it’s just interesting what decisions one makes without the burden of a fancy label.

For further tomato reading, check out these fantastic resources:
Ripe by Arthur Allen
Pomodoro! The History of the Tomato in Italy by David Gentilcore
The Tomato in America by Andrew F. Smith
SanMarzanoTomatoes.org

** I originally wrote this piece for the pizza blog Slice.

Tomato Update - Week 10

This hasn’t been a great growing season for me so far and these last few weeks have been even worse.

Just as a refresher, I found a tomato on the train tracks at Capua station in Italy this February and smuggled the seeds back to Brooklyn. Even though the seeds sprouted quickly, they didn’t live too long thereafter. Only five of the seedlings made it to week 6.

Now for the update. I only have room for four plants, so I gave a plant to one of my favorite pizza makers at Lombardi’s. The next day, I decided it was time to put the remaining seedlings in the ground. I had prepared a makeshift bookshelf planting bed and carefully mixed the soil with fresh compost before covering it with a black plastic sheet (to keep out weeds and retain heat/moisture). The plants were still really small and I’m pretty nervous about backyard creatures so I installed a short chicken-wire fence around my planting bed just to be safe. 

The next day, I awoke to a massacre. In hindsight, I probably should have taken a photograph of the destruction but it’s probably for the best that I didn’t. Too many emotions. The entire bed was torn up and my delicate smuggled Italian tomato plants were uprooted from their new homes. Who could have done such a thing??? Footprints in the dirt revealed the horrible truth: my upstairs neighbor’s adorable dog Finn had tomato blood on his paws.

I found all four victims and replanted them immediately, but only 1 survived the shock of “The Massacre.” He stands proud, living in spite of his traumatic past. We’ve been getting steady sunlight and rain, so the environment has been pretty good. Finn is no longer allowed out back by himself, but we rekindled out friendship and all is forgiven.

As you can see from the photo below, the tomato bed is pretty roomy. One of my neighbors gave me a tomato plant to express his condolences, so I planted it in the plot on the left. It may not completely fill the void left by the departure of my beloved smuggled tomato plants, but it does serve to honor them.

We have lots of other stuff growing this year, so I installed a water bucket to collect rain to help me water all those suckas. It’s pretty sweet, I grabbed an empty olive barrel from Coluccio & Sons in Brooklyn (one of my favorite sources for cheese, tomatoes, oil, etc) and covered the top with cheap mesh screen. I still want to add some funnels to trap more rain, but the project will be ongoing as the season continues.

Tomato Update - Week 6

I am a murderer.

After planting my tomato seeds on April 6, I underestimated the growing power of an electric blanket and failed to notice that they had all sprouted within four days. I left the entire tray covered with a sheet of plastic wrap to keep in moisture, but the low ceiling inspired funky growth patterns in my cute little seedlings. I figured this was just a temporary flaw that would be fixed by nature, but it didn’t seem to go away even after days of even exposure to sunlight.

Beginning of Week 2, with funky growth patterns

But at least my plants were still alive. They didn’t look too pretty, but at they were standing upright and that’s more than I can say for them today. Am I using bad soil? Am I not watering them enough? Am I watering them too much? Am I depriving them of real sunlight? Well, maybe I was a bit of an overprotective parent but I kept my little seedlings inside because it’s dangerous out there in my Brooklyn backyard. We have one of the only yards in the area and apparently it’s the only place the wind can hang out because it turns into a tornado anytime there’s a light breeze. I was afraid the gusts would funk up my prized plants so I kept them inside. Little did I realize that depriving young seedlings of sunlight was as much a death sentence as I could give them, but I caught the mistake just in the nick of time.

Last year’s crop was probably too big for me to handle so maybe it’s good that some plants didn’t make it so I can concentrate on the strong few who did. These vines will compete for sunlight and the last thing I want to do is let them cramp eachother’s style. I only have room for four plants in my designated tomato zone, so it would be unnecessary to grow more than that. The remaining six tomato plants aren’t going to win any beauty contests but they were alive and that’s all I want.


Survivors - week 6

I can see that these wee lads are maturing because they are growing their first real leaves. This is an important step in every young tomato plant’s life because it shows some true characteristics of a mature vine. One day, they will be transplanted and only these mature leaves will show. It will be their triumph as the lonely survivors of the Class of 2011. I have to admit that it does make sense. Most of these seedlings were hatched from seeds I brought back from a tomato I found on the train tracks at Capua. The seeds survived the dangerous railroad, a long flight home, a close call with customs, and a good week or two of sunlight deprivation. They truly are fit for survival.


Mature leaves at week 6

If all goes according to plan, these little guys will go into the ground at the end of May. I have my soil mixed with fresh compost and covered with a sheet of black plastic. This will protect the soil from weeds while absorbing heat to warm soil in preparation for  my brave soldiers. 

So it all comes down to this. My seedlings have just over 2 weeks to show me they’re serious before they hit real outdoor soil. Today I caught myself looking at photos of last year’s tomatoes, hoping and dreaming that this year will be an improvement. It looks like I’m off to a rocky start, but I believe in the magic of tomatoes.


Tomato bed, made from a scavenged bookshelf, is ready for action

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

NOOOOOOOO!!!

It looks like I flew too close to the sun. My beautiful tomato garden has been destroyed. Who’s to blame? I’ll tell you who: nature. For the past three days, New York has experienced weather more suited to Seattle. It’s constantly damp and gross, which is not good for adorable tomato plants. To be quite honest, I hadn’t checked on them for days. Rain means I don’t have to water them, right? NOPE! Rain means I should have thrown a tarp over them to stop wicked infiltration of unsolicited irrigation. I looked out the kitchen window this morning and saw this…

Those plants are supposed to stay vertical. I carefully tied the indeterminate vines to stakes with strips of pantyhose, as not to cut into the plants and prematurely end their lives. It looks like the weight of water droplets along with gusting winds was enough to take the plants down.

This is the reason great tomatoes are grown in Southern Italy and California’s central valley. Those regions don’t get rain in the summer, so controlled irrigation is possible. We’ll have to wait for next year to test the assumption that volcanic soil from Mt Vesuvius creates perfect growing conditions, but what good is soil below if your plants are at left vulnerable to nature from above?

Upon closer inspection, I found evidence of destruction left by yet another of nature’s dark warriors: rodents. It looks like a real jerk scampered around taking a single bite out of each ripe tomato.I know the photo seems blurry but I just wanted you to experience what it looked like through tear-filled eyes.

I was afraid this might happen so I’m glad I picked a few tomatoes while they were ripe, but it looks like the plants are out of commission unless I can fix them up tomorrow after the rain stops. In the meantime, I grabbed any untouched fruits and brought them inside. Now I have to learn how to can tomatoes. Sounds like a great project for tomorrow!

Here they are, the lonely soldiers who made it through the Great Tomato Ravaging of 2010. I’ll have more updates after tomorrow’s plant fixing / tomato canning operation is complete.

Tomato Update: They’re Turning RED!!!

I know I know - they are supposed to turn red, but this has been a long and tedious process so I am entitled to celebrate. People freak their baby’s first haircut or the funny position in which they found their dog sleeping, but I have no baby and I have no dog. Instead, I have nine tomato plants growing in an improvised plot behind my Brooklyn apartment. What started as a handful of seeds is now taking up significant space in my backyard. Some of the plants remain barren but others are starting to show me they mean business and I’m ready to cash their lycopene-filled checks at the bank of my belly.

I still have a few weeks to go before these suckers are ready to eat, but I’m really excited that they are starting to ripen. I see more baby tomatoes popping up every day and I think things are going to really kick in as we approach August. Some helpful YouTube videos showed me how to prune the plants and I have been paying careful attention to extraneous branches that grow off the main vine. The idea is to pinch off the unwanted bits so that all sugar is diverted to the tomato-bearing arms. It’s my first time growing tomatoes so I’m trying to do everything I can to learn the ropes in preparation for next year’s garden.

  

The photo on the left shows a couple San Marzanos just hangin’ around and turning red, much to my delight. A mysterious variety ripens in the other photo — on of my neighbors must have forgotten that she left this plant in the backyard so I assumed responsibility and it is now producing the loveliest fruit of the bunch. I’m pretty amazed because the bulk of growth happened when I was out of town for a couple of days, thus unable to obsess over watering and pruning.

Perhaps patience is the secret ingredient for a successful tomato crop, but my built-in recipe includes heaping helpings of nervousness and torment. I’ve just heard too many horror stories of unwanted backyard guests enjoying tomato season more than the humans who made it possible and I’m getting more afraid of the inevitable tomato thief with every day that passes. Because as the tomatoes ripen and turn red, they become even more appealing to The Enemy. I’ve read a few tips about keeping rats away, from cayenne pepper spray to Irish Spring soap. You can see the chicken wire cage I built in the photo above, but I’m not convinced it’s going to do much. If I disappear for a couple weeks, it just means I’m sleeping with the tomatoes.

If you have any tips for keeping The Enemy out, I’m all ears.

Tomato Update - GROUNDED!

Sometime in mid-March I planted a bunch of seeds I purchased from Tomatofest in California. Seedlings of several varieties sprouted: San Marzano, Super San Marzano, San Marzano Redorta and Roma. I spent weeks keeping their Styrofoam cup homes in direct sunlight and out of harsh temperatures. There were several times I thought the plants had stopped growing, only to find major developments the next day. This week, I took a big step and transplanted my little darlings into the Earth.

My neighborhood in Brooklyn has an industrial past, so I don’t trust the soil in our yard. I brought in some soil through some friends who are doing a massive gardening project in NJ and let it warm up in the sun for a few days. The next challenge was finding something to put the soil into, so I kept my eyes peeled and found a bookshelf on the streets of Soho right outside Lombardi’s! I dug up a hole in the yard in an area that gets the most sunlight and nested the bookshelf/raised bed into its new home. I’m only using the frame of the unit, so there is no back and only one shelf in the center for support.

These tomatoes are supposed to have lots of room, so I kept the plants super spaced out. I’m probably giving them too much space but I really want them to have a shot at survival. I covered the soil with black plastic to keep weeds out and moisture in. It will also help to keep the soil warm, which will make the tomatoes happy!

I’ll be modifying the setup a bit over the next few weeks, adding bamboo support posts for the plants and some chicken wire around the outside of the raised bed.These things have survived longer than I thought they would so I’m pretty optimistic that we’ll make it to harvest in late August. 

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.