When the tomato was first brought back from the New America’s to Spain – and nearly a century later diplomatically ‘gifted’ to Naples by the Spanish Court - it was thought to be highly decorative, but poisonous. It was a daring courtier who took the first bite – and you could say the Essential Italian Kitchen as we know it was born that day. Naples’ staple would be a sorrowful flatbread without the red topping.
I can think of few foods that oscillate quite so readily between the orgasmic and the ‘orrible. Most we ever eat in Britain fall into the second class. The BBC encouragingly carried a news report just days ago about how tomatoes should never be chilled – what have chefs, cooks, writers and gardeners been saying all these years and has anyone listened? Chilling destroys flavour development – the fruit will never recover.
Supermarkets are beset with their affection for their highly priced ’chill chain’ – some stores are almost too chilly to walk around – even the staff are provided with padded gilets. Just one UK supermarket avoids chilling its tomatoes – Morrison’s. The Co-operative Food contacted me after this post first went out to say they try sell their tomatoes ambient. The big question to both is what about variety and farming. I’ve heard nothing since then.
Let’s concentrate then on the best. First will be home grown – in your garden or on your tiny balcony of your city apartment, but planted and nurtured by you – even if they were 2nd best, you’d probably not admit it. You will have selected a good variety, avoided ‘tomato food’ and been blessed with a sunny summer. As you take the fruit from the vine you should be near overcome with heady and delicious aroma of ‘tomato’.
You can also strike lucky in the market – around now we sometimes have shipments of bright red, ripe plum tomatoes the size of a large grape from Portugal and southern Spain. I buy 2-3 kilo’s a time – bring them to the boil, gently simmer for 3-4 minutes and then immediately into icy water. Next, I ‘pass’ them through the mouli-legumes - on finest setting. That is fresh ‘sugo‘ – nothing added whatsoever – no salt, no garlic, no rosemary, nothing – just tomatoes stirred through the pasta, a really generous splash of good E/V olive oil and sprinkled at table with fresh grated Parmesan and black pepper. To be really chic I might pass them a 2nd time through a fine sieve to remove every single seed – Tom, our youngest, will accept no less and this is Supper Numero Uno for him.
So to preserved tomatoes. At the top, naturally enough, are San Marzano DOP tomatoes from Sarnese-Nocerino valleys (Campania), within sight of the still active Mount Vesuvius and a short ride from Pompeii. The fields are rich with volcanic soil. Pomodoro San Marzano DOP can only be sold canned to be certain of the real item. Top chefs across the world rate them as No 1. They’d be right.
A good Italian salumeria (grocer) will sell anything between 15-25 varieties of processed tomato – all will be good, some will be better. You must decide whether you want smooth (passata) or texture, regular or named variety, this region or that……………ask the boss if you’re not sure because each has its place in your kitchen.
Beware of San Marzano tomatoes sold fresh – they can be excellent and could be your own home grown, but most I’ve ever tasted here are thin, poor distant cousins to their meaty parents grown in Campania. Those grown hydroponically are about as bad as it gets.
Never forget, most canned tomatoes with Italian origin are better than any tomato you’ll find fresh in the UK – so make a habit of using them in your cooking. They are harvested when fully ripe under the relentless, day long Mediterranean sun, sorted and canned within the day. That’s fresher than any ‘fresh’ tomato in the shop.
Tetrapak™ like these Pomí are good for their price; those in glass, like these from Abruzzo, are more expensive and far better. They are less processed due to the glass - Tetrapak sits in the middle and tin cans must be most processed of all. That’s why these smaller cans are always better than the large ‘industrial’ cans as the contents must be sufficiently cooked through to heat to centre of the can – bigger the diameter, the more they’re cooked. Simple really.
The San Marzano DOP tomato is something we must defend – Blue Collar Gastronauts take note – it’s not the first time I’ve mentioned it. Fakes are seized by the hundreds of tonnes by Italian Customs – one haul in late 2010 was valued at a staggering €1.2m. Unless the can carries the official red and yellow DOP roundel and is numbered like a good Italian wine, then you may be buying contraband – see below.
A typical can of DOP San Marzano carries more information on the label than I think I’ve ever, ever witnessed on a tin, from production lot number to an explanation of DOP – right down to the fact the fruits can only be grown in 41 municpalities in Campania – that all beats the dreadful catch-all ’Product of the EU’ does it not? Bravo San Marzano DOP.
The Italian authorities correctly react as fiercely with faked canned tomatoes as they do with the Prada, Louis Vuitton or Fendi handbags sold on their city streets. Remember the original and timeless Gucci snaffle loafer? My oldest pair still in perfect use are +30 years. They were then made in two factories – one making the left shoe, the other making the right. The Italians know about fakery and contraband.
My food caring neighbours, Chris and Mark, returning from a trip to the north, recently buzzed our door to proudly hand across a can of San Marzano DOP tomatoes they’d found in Booth’s. They’d read my earlier pieces and taken the campaign to heart. How long must we wait for Waitrose to buy Booth’s – it’d be one of their smarter moves?
I’m keeping close to the campaigning against fake San Marzano tomatoes. It’s that important. I promise I’ll post, Facebook and Tweet every time I learn something new. We must care for gems like these – this is Nature that’s not for squandering. Listen up all you hydroponic and glasshouse merchants, Nature never is to be given 2nd seat.
The tomato – the love apple – is the cook’s gift. A can of San Marzano is that and more – a golden gift wrapped in golden paper. Even the cans have an ever so slightly golden sheen.
PS: I just learned Sarno – one of the San Marzano production centres that suffered those dreadful and fatal landslides in the late 90s – is twinned with Abergavenny (South Wales) - another good food town with a wonderful covered market. Maybe unimportant, but exciting nonetheless.