‘Under the Volcano’ – San Marzano Tomatoes

The San Marzano tomato is considered quite the very finest varietal of the fruit. Some food historians say its origins were in Peru – and the first plants were presented as a gift from the Kingdom of Peru to the then Kingdom of Naples in 1770. Others say, for me more probably, they would have come from Mexico via Spain, as did other tomato varieties - and began life as decorative pomodoro plants in the smarter gardens around the city, Whatever, the best San Marzano tomatoes are today grown in a controlled area of the Sarno-Nocerino valleys where being below Mount  Vesuvius, the volcanic soil is specially fertile.

So treasured is the San Marzano that it is the prefered tomato for the Vera Pizza Napoletana –  although other varieties are also now permitted by the SGT (specialita’ tradizionale garantita) - and Naples, as we know, is the home and hearth of pizza.

The seeds find their way all over the world - most good seedsmen will sell you  a packet - and here begins the problem, because only the San Marzano tomatoes grown in the Sarno valley in the volcanic soil, display all the gastronomic qualities associated with a San Marzano tomato and can therefore display the precious EU’s DOP certification (Designation of Origin).  Such is their value, they are known locally as ‘red gold’.

It’s really no different from Chardonnay grown in  the Burgundy to the same varietal planted in the New World. It’s not morally wrong, it’s just that we must accept it will be different.  Worse is if the producer tries to pass off one as the other – as sadly is the case with the supreme San Marzano tomato.

We have here one of the bigger current gastro-scams around – and because it’s ‘just canned tomatoes’ who cares?  The answer is we do – Blue Collar Gastronauts and those many chefs and home cooks  around the world who rightly fuss about provenance.

San Marzano DOP tomatoes can only be sold canned and simply processed. Myths abound – one I’ve read being they have no need to be skinned as the skins naturally dissolve in the cooking process, adding a richer flavour and colour to the sauce – this is in fact entirely untrue as the Consorzio require the tomatoes to be peeled before canning.  Shocking is the belief that around an eye-watering 95% of San Marzano canned tomatoes on sale in the USA are fake, in they weren’t grown in the area around San Marzano, near Naples.

San Marzano sold fresh are another issue altogether because they’ll likely come anywhere but fields below Mount Versuvius - some more likely grown in industrial greenhouses where there’s no hint of the flavour enhancing long hours of  Mediterranean sunshine. There is something of the drama of the Albert Finney masterpiece, ‘Under the Volcano’ about this scenario. It all bores its way back to the essential ‘terroir’.

Most plum tomatoes are the Roma variety, but side by side they look quite different – the San Marzano is longer, slimmer and has a distinctive point at the tip. The flesh is mush thicker, there are fewer seeds – the flavour is both sweeter and stronger.  It’s been often described as bittersweet, akin to high quality chocolate

There is a strong trade in fraudulent San Marzano’s and only last November (2010) 1,470 tons, worth around 1.2m Euros were confiscated by the Italian authorities – some cans carried San Marzano fruit grown in other countries, not just outside the classified Sarno-Nocerino Valleys region near Naples.

I fell foul of the scam just a few days ago when I was thrilled to find fresh San Marzano sold on the vine in a major British supermarket.  They came from Holland and produced a sauce that was pale pink – down the waste disposal rapido was its destination and then I learned a day or so later that time had come to expose the scam – the New York Times ran the story. The spirit behind this is Edoardo Ruggiero, president of the Consorzio San Marzano and championed by the food realist – and friend - Beatrice Ughi, founder of Gustiamo. The San Marzano producers are on a mission to expose the fakers – they are well supported, because the San Marzano tomato grown in the region is a Slow Food Ark food.

Like the enormous volume of Italian extra virgin olive oil on sale, the Sarno Valley region simply couldn’t produce the tonnage that’s on sale as San Marzano tomatoes. One Italian food specialist told me that if you haven’t  with your own eyes the olives being pressed, then there’s every chance the oil came from elsewhere – there are Spanish and Greek oils which have near identical taste characteristics, so it’s hard to detect as fake.  The irony of recent times is that Spain and Greece have decided they have an advantageous provenance, so supplies are drying up for the faksters as these oils are being sold in smart labelled bottles as Spanish and Greek – by region and varietal too – and no longer being shipped by the tankerload to an anonymous plant somewhere that can claim an Italian address.

The rule to follow is simple: buy only San Marzano tomatoes that are DOP certified (see right) from San Marzano. The cans also carry a production number (see left).  Any other is a fake.

Any sold as puree, sauce, chopped, diced or labelled organic are also fakes.

Gustiamo, the importers of some of the finest foods from Italy, first introduced me to Dani Coop at the Italian food fair, CIBUS, in Parma a few years ago. Their passion was born out by their product which we tasted on teaspoons, cold straight from a jar.  Amazing. They even had a yellow variety which I have yet to see in a shop.

I’ve been aware of this problem for a few years but had no idea of the scale of trickery, backed  by  a ‘who cares?’ attitude – much like the mis-labelling of food in the UK as ‘fresh’ which again passes most people by. Blue Collar Gastronauts have a busy time ahead.

Check out all I am saying by visiting http://gustiamo.typepad.com/gustinlog201/08/san-marzano.hitml.  This will give you the facts without sparing the fakers’ shame. Dig further if you will by visiting www.consorziopomodorosanmarzanodop.it.

There’s now a movement in the USA called ‘Italianissimi’ set at exposing so-called Italian product being passed off as the genuine article.  There’s nothing essentially wrong with making mozzarella in England, or Brie in Normandy,  or salami in America, but please don’t try and pass it off as the genuine article – especially when the real thing is available at like price and most times superior flavour. Terroir counts for everything – it’s what makes food and wine so special.

Thank goodness for DOP and let’s eat food from where the food should come from, unless we can prove near identical terroir and artisan care.

We’ll watch how this campaign develops and help where we can. Fakers need exposing and retailers buyers need help in distinguishing the real from the ersatz. That’s a task for Blue Collar Gastronomy.

The volcano will hopefully erupt any day now and shower the cheats with lava in the form of shame. Too may food people work too hard to produce fine food – others scam.  Time’s here to make the distinction.

Bravo Beatrice Ughi and her merchant house, Gustiamo , even more so, bravo e grazie to Edoardo Ruggiero of the Consorzio San Marzano. A food as good as this needs all the protection that international law can give it.


This entry was posted in Blue Collar Gastronomy, DOP, food politics, Food Scams, Ingredients, Nonna's Cooking, Origins of our food, Real Italy, Simple Food, Southern Italy, Terroir, The Food Business and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to ‘Under the Volcano’ – San Marzano Tomatoes

  1. Chelsey says:

    An intriguing discussion is definitely worth comment.

    I do think that you should write more about this issue, it may
    not be a taboo subject but typically people don’t speak about such topics.

    To the next! Best wishes!!

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