Recently, the New York Times published an article-cartoon entitled “The Mystery of San Marzano” created by the art designer Nicholas Blechman. The author defends the Italian tomato against frauds with a fun series of images. The cartoon series inspires me to write about these beautiful Italian tomatoes.
San Marzano is the most famous plum tomato not only from Italy but also perhaps from around the world. San Marzano tomato sauce in the basic ingredient of true Neapolitan pizza and is used by the best chefs in the world. This tomato is appreciated for its sweet flavor, its low acidity, its firm pulp, and its intense red color.
The tomatoes are grown in small plots of land in rich volcanic soil at the foot of Vesuvius in the Agro Sarnese-Nocerino area near Naples. In San Marzano the harvest begins in August and concludes at the end of September. The tomatoes are harvested by hand by a generation of farmers in danger of extinction. Most are men over 50 years of age.
San Marzano is a DOP—Denominazione d’Origine Protetta. Only tomatoes grown here are truly San Marzano. In the European Union tomatoes can be labeled San Marzano only if they meet stringent criteria established by a consortium that regulates everything from the seeds to the labeling.
In the United States, cans of San Marzano tomatoes are sold everywhere. Some are authentic, some are “frauds,” that is, a product of the U.S. or another country. How to identify the frauds? In America there is neither DOP nor a consortium that protects against fraud. Therefore, the consumer must detect the difference. The label must have the words “San Marzano tomatoes from the Agro Sarnese Nocerino” and should have the identification code or the DOP and the consortium brand. In addition, San Marzano tomatoes are whole–never diced or crushed.
What is the price? $1.99 for the false and $3.99 for the real. Expensive, but the price of authenticity in a global economy.
To feel better, an Italian friend who lives in Santa Barbara and is an excellent cook told me that she thinks that California tomatoes are as good as San Marzano tomatoes, especially these days when there is so much toxicity from garbage around Naples. This is good news for environmentalists who believe that one should buy local products. My friend also says that in both Italy and the United States the best canned tomatoes are whole. Tomatoes of inferior quality are used for diced or crushed canned tomatoes.