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History of the San Marzano Tomato

 

Royalty, emmigration, 70 years of glory, gradual neglect, forsaken, replaced, threat of extinction, rescue, redemption, prosperity, politics, public relations, protectionism, DNA testing, and the most ironic outcome of all: - this is the story of the San Marzano Tomato that few people in America know about.

Perhaps no other tomato in the world has quite the story to tell as the San Marzano tomato does. It resembles one of those celebrity rise and fall and rise again stories that chronicle the life of some actor, singer, or stateman. As the most famous plum tomato for making sauce, the San Marzano is preferred by Gourmet Chefs and Cooks all over the world. In Italy and elsewhere in Europe, they are a household name. In organic & specialty food stores in the United States, imported and certified SM's sell for eyebrow raising prices.

Foodies and connoisseur's, to put it politely but accurately, are FANATICAL about certified San Marzano tomatoes and talk about them with elitist sounding hyperbole. Gardeners too prefer them for homemade sauces and carefully and lovingly raise their San Marzano plants all season long. And finally, it is the only tomato sauce allowed on a Neapolitan pizza, "otherwise it's just meat and sauce," as one Italian cook puts it.

How did we get here?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Myth

It seems only suitable that a tomato as famous as the San Marzano should have a mythical and romantic genesis. According to "oral tradition," the first San Marzano tomato seeds were a gift from the King of Peru to the King of Naples sometime during the 1770s. These seeds were then planted near the city of San Marzano in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. From these seeds, crossbreeding and careful selection led to the current day San Marzano tomato.

It's a wonderful story to tell that just happens to serve the public relations purposes of the San Marzano quite nicely. It's vague, with a lot of wiggle room, and sounds like it could be true.

It's not.

Historical Facts

Here's what we do know. The predomestication & genetic history of the tomato does probably begin in Peru, but as little green fruit. It's not until later, in Mexico and Central America (via the Aztecs) that tomatoes become more domesticated and really start to take off as a food item. Historians argue it was either the Spanish explorer Cortez, or the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (working for the Spanish), who was the first European to bring the tomato back to the continent. It was definetely in Europe by 1544 when Italian physicist and botanist, Pietro Andrea Mattioli, wrote about it. He named it: the golden apple, or pomo d'oro, as in pomodoro, Italian for tomato. It's interesting to note he described it as golden, instead of red (golden couldn't have referred to it's economic value in 1544, it didn't have one). Fast forward to 1692 and the tomato shows up in a Naples cookbook, however, the author was apparently copying some Spanish recipes. After that, the tomato pretty much sat on the shelf for 100s of years. Europeans (and Americans) thought they were poisonous, and tomatoes were nothing more than decoration pieces until the 17th or 18th century. People thought they were poisonous because they would eat tomatoes off of dinnerware made from - lead. So when they started getting sick and dying, they blamed the tomato, not the plates and bowls.(1,2,3)

We also know that in 1770, there was no King of Peru and Peru wasn't a kingdom. Inhabited by the Incas, Peru was declared a Spanish viceroyalty by the Spanish Crown in 1542. Earlier, in 1533, Spanish explorer Francisco Pizzaro imprisoned the last Incan King of Peru, Atahualpa, who offered to fill a room full of gold to pay his ransom. The Incans filled the room full of gold and Pizzaro took it all and killed him anyway. After that, there were a few notable Incan leaders that rose up to challenge the Spanish. Most notable was one of the royal bloodline, Tupac Amur d. 1572, but the last to carry the title of King was Atahualpa.(4,5,6) Atahualpa

In the 1770s, Peru was still under the heavy handed control of the Spanish and there was no Peruvian king, let alone a popular Incan leader. So it's doubtful that a king of Peru or Kingdom of Peru was passing along any tomato seeds to the Kingdom of Naples. [In a nice footnote, things start to go downhill for the Spanish in Peru in 1780 and by 1824, Peru is free from Spain. Tragically, most of the Incans are dead by the time].(4,5,6,7,8)

No Italian or English documents on the San Marzano tomato bring up those historical facts about Peru, and seem to prefer to let the myth of royal beginnings 'ride it's own wave.' That myth is repeated ad infinitum to nauseum all over the internet.

A Legend is Born

With the help of Google Books, I was able to locate the oldest documented evidence of the San Marzano tomato published in, of all places, America, not Italy. The 1894 USDA edition of Yearbook of agriculture via Google was only able to surrender a small snippet of information (full view of the book is not available for reading online) under a report entitled, "Redesigning the Tomato for Mechanized Production,"

Development of tomato varieties suited to mechanized harvesting was concurrent with harvester design and development. ... Fruit of the large-vined variety, San Marzano, withstood simulated machine harvesting and was used as a parent in ...(30)

That's it. No other information is available until 1902, when, according to Italian documents translated by Google Translate, and the English version of an Italian based packer & exporter, the San Marzano is described as a cross between 3 different tomatoes being grown in the region at that time: the King Umberto, Fiaschella, and the Fiascona. Of these 3 cultivars, only the King Umberto is still grown. The other 2 have since disappeared from the public. (9,10,11)

Legend from then and still used today declares that due to the San Marzano area's volcanic & rich soil, and due to properties from the Mediterranean climate, San Marzano tomatoes grown in the Campania region of Italy are far superior for cooking and sauces over any other paste, plum and even San Marzano tomatoes grown anywhere else, including other parts of Italy.

The cultivation takes place in flat terrain, covered with volcanic material, deep, soft, with good supply of organic matter and a high amount of phosphorus and potassium, - Luciano Pignatoro, (12)

Other factors, including the use of wood stakes, raised by hand, it's delicate nature (meaning, it can't take being roughed up like some commercially produced/harvested/packed strains of tomatoes), harvesting when ripe, and harvesting "when the Sun goes down" reports one website, - all seem to factor in it's delicious and superior flavor. The tomato itself does seem to have some unique properties leading to it's flavor which include an unusual and often described distinctive sweet flavor (when cooked into sauce, this flavor really comes to life), high density and pectin (which causes the sauce to be thicker), very few seeds (less than other paste tomatoes), bright red color and easiness to peel (convenient when you have to peel hundreds to thousands). (11,13,14)

Whatever the combination, secret, or method, people were talking about it and the tomato from San Marzano gained great culinary appreciation during those formative years. Somebody, quite literally, discovered the recipe for the "secret sauce."

Canneries in the region (the first was built in 1875 by Francesco Cirio, an early supporter of the San Marzano tomato), picked, peeled, packed and shipped them out all over Italy. Their popularity and recognition of their unique flavor grew quickly.(11)

The peeled tomato industry is a source of pride for Campania. People use a variety known as san marzano.... The plant can bear up to 10–12 bunches of fruit.... The skin has a bright red color and is easily removable, an indispensable characteristic for preparing peeled tomatoes. The pulp is dense and only slightly sugary in flavor.... - Ferruccio Zago writing in Nozioni di Orticultura, 1920. (14)

By the late 1920s and 30s, San Marzano tomato seeds are being sold in German, French and Italian seed catalogs distributed all over Europe. (15)

In the coming decades, San Marzanos remained a source of pride and economic utility for the people of Campania while cans & seeds spread to the Americas and new and different cultivars were developed. (15)

Forsaken & Replaced

Sometime during the 1970s, it all started to slip away. The Italian reports are vague and share some similarities as well as differences. But from what I could piece together, several factors came together at about the same time and the deck was stacked against the San Marzano. Apparently, San Marzano tomato crops were getting hit by bouts of disease (cucumber mosaic virus) and some pollution involving bromide, and Temik. New hybrid tomatoes could solve this disease problem and this seemed to play into the hands of the canning companies who wanted to buy more hybrids from farmers. San Marzanos are more delicate, require work by hand, and several pickings at vine ripeness- factors which raise the cost. The San Marzano was bred for thin skins so it would be easy to peel. Thin skinned tomatoes don't do well in commercial farming, trucking and processing operations.(12,13,16,17,18)

As is so often the case, "big business" was blamed, and it was a fair claim. Quantity, not quality, and the bottom line drove the tomato business in Italy at that time.

"...so when big business was able to select varieties more resistant and therefore more economical..." the San Marzano was gradually abandoned. (12) The size of the annual crop and land in use continued to decline year over year as hybrid's moved in to take their place.(9, 12, 16)

Since then the canneries that produce "peeled" have started to buy elsewhere hybrids more resistant to mechanical processing and San Marzano native was in danger of extinction.(13)

Big business turned it's back on the San Marzano tomato. (Remember that part about big business for later).

Rescue and Redemption

San Marzano Tomato Comparison Plot

San Marzano test and comparison plot. Photo Credit: Department of Agriculture and Productive Activities - Se.SIRCA & Consortium for Applied Research in Agriculture, Dr. Patrizia Spigno (16), Campania Regional Govt website

In the early 1990s, somebody in the Campania region woke up one day and said: "What the heck happened to the San Marzano tomato industry?" Maybe. Probably not. But a major shift in the attitude toward San Marzano tomatoes was coming.

During the mid-90s, agronomists from the Cirio Research Center (Center Cirio Recirche) led by Dr. Patrizia Spigno went out to the remaining farms and fields of San Marzano tomato growers to search for the "true" San Marzano tomato. Finding cultivars that had all the characteristics and features of the old San Marzano would later become important for receiving EU recognition and certification. They identified 27 possible cultivars and grew them for 2 years. A the end of 2 years, 2 cultivars were singled out.

The details are unclear from the Google Translate version of Italian documents, but the two deemed of most value to future crop strains were Cirio Selection 3, and the SMEC 20, which was renamed the San Marzano 2.(9,16)

The choice of variety is a strategic factor for ensuring adequate levels of production and quality and thus ensure their viability and thus a more widespread culture, hence the need to frequently monitor the landscape variety to make available the best businesses Farmers genotypes St. Marzano. - 2004 Italian CRAA/Campania Region 18 page report. (16)

July 10, 1996 is an important day for the San Marzano tomato and marks the beginning of it's comeback. On that date, the San Marzano tomato in the Agro Sarnese Nocerino region of Campania (see map) was granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Union. (19)

From that day forward, cans of San Marzano tomatoes with the EU's DOP seal are guaranteed by the European Union to be authentic and genuine San Marzano tomatoes from the region in which it is most native. DOP status is granted to many different food items, vegetable, fruit, meat, etc., that qualify. (In Italian, it is 'Denominazione d'Origine Protetta, and abbreviated, DOP. All of the imported cans of SMs say DOP).

The purpose of the law is to protect the reputation of the regional foods and eliminate the unfair competition and misleading of consumers by non-genuine products, which may be of inferior quality or of different flavour. (20)

Unfair competition or protectionism from outside growers trying to capitalize on the San Marzano "brand" ? Either way, it is what it is.


Map opens in New Window

The full area of where "authentic" San Marzano tomatoes for DOP certification can be grown involves 3 of the 5 provinces of the Campania region. (Province is like a county, and region is like a state). They include Salerno, Naples and a small part of Avellino. The village of San Marzano sits in the fertile valley of Mount Vesuvius (which is between San Marzano and the sea). Within the EU designated agricultural region of Agro Sarnese-Nocerino is 41 municipalities. In the red area highlighted in the map are 39,540 acres (16,000 hectares) "available" for the production of San Marzano tomatoes for DOP certifications. (9,16)

However, that doesn't mean certified SMs are grown on all 16,000, only that they COULD grow there. One Italian source put the size of the annual San Marzano tomato crop at 80,000 to 100,000 metric tons. (It's unclear if that's all DOP certified or not). Another source puts it at an average of 39,000 tons a year from 2000 to 2005. According to the Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations, Italy is the top exporter of "peeled tomatoes" at 980,303 tonnes in 2007. (9,21,22)

Some Italian canneries and San Marzano exporters do not believe that an EU stamp makes the tomatoes taste any better. Many are grown in the Agro Sarnese-Nocerino region, outside of it, in Campania and all throughout Italy, used and exported, that do not have the DOP stamp. In 1999, The Consortium for the Protection of San Marzano Tomatoes - Agro Sarnese Nocerino was established to help protect, oversee certification and promote DOP San Marzano tomatoes. If a tomato canning company in the specified region wants a DOP sticker on their label, they have to pay a fee to the Consortium.

"Factories in the San Marzano region which market their products as DOP San Marzano must pay the Consorzio San Marzano to use 2 stamps on their labels; the EU’s DOP stamp and the Corsorzio San Marzano stamp. These fees then contribute to the continued operation of the Consortium,." reports a tomato exporters website. This company, Carmelina Brands, grows San Marzanos in that area, but chooses not to brand their San Marzanos as DOP, because they want to "pass on the savings" to their North American customers, they claim. (10)

Even so, DOP stamped SMs are heavily promoted and Foodies in the United States swear by them. They believe there is a big difference in quality and flavor.

San Marzano tomatoes are, not to put too fine a point on it, simply the best sauce tomatoes in the world. Better than any other canned tomato. Better than 99.9 percent of the fresh tomatoes out there. Accept no imitations because -- trust me on this -- they're not nearly as good." - Bill Citara, Food Fight Blog. The only way to be sure you're getting the genuine article is to look for the D.O.P. (Denominazione d' Origine Protetta) seal on the label....If you don't believe that San Marzano tomatoes are to the tomatoes you usually buy what a Ferrari is to a broken-down old skateboard, spring for a can of them... Taste the result, then throw the other stuff out for the dog and enjoy the best goddamned tomato sauce on the planet. (23)

Poor Bill. Was he brainwashed by a San Marzano Tomato Cult? Maybe. I am keeping my neutrality. But he's certainly not alone in the conviction of his beliefs.

Ask any chef what the best tomatoes for sauce are, and you’ll hear a unified chorus: San Marzano—a tomato so distinctive and high quality that it is the only variety that can be used for true Neapolitan pizza. - The Nibble.com, The Magazine about Speciality Foods.(24)

However, as with anything, favorite brands and nationalities of canned tomatoes are very subjective to one's opinion and background, as is evident in an opinionated thread entitled - Best Italian Canned Tomatoes? on a forum at chowhound.chow.com.(25), In addition, out of three informal & unscientific San Marzano taste tests we found online, San Marzano DOP tomatoes didn't fair too well. But it should be noted these were conducted by Americans - whose taste buds might lean towards domestic tomatoes. So it's all rather subjective. (26,27, 28)

DNA Testing

In order to make sure the "true" San Marzano stays - true to it's genes, Italian agricultural scientists have used DNA fingerprinting to look at molecular signatures to asertain if locally grown cultivars have genetically strayed from the established norms.

"Its correct identification is essential in order to preserve this variety, which is highly valued and known worldwide, from an increasing number of similar cultivars with inferior organoleptic features....DNA fingerprinting proved to be a powerful tool for the analysis of the `San Marzano' cultivar and in the description of the genetic inconsistencies present in the locally cultivated traditional `San Marzano' collections." - 2006 Abstract, (29)

Coming Full Circle

From it's rapid decline in the 1970s-80s, to it's comeback in the 90s to the necessity of having DNA testing in the last decade, the San Marzano tomato has come full circle. And remember above when we told you how big business had turned it's back on the San Marzano? In an ironic outcome that could match a Shakespearian play, the San Marzano tomato has become a big business of it's own. At 80,000 to 100,000 tons annually, the San Marzano crop from Campania by itself would be the world's 3rd largest exporter of peeled tomatoes - if all of them were exported, with only Italy and Spain in front of it. (22)

"With its high quality and use primarily for preserves, the San Marzano tomato has become big business in this region for growers and packers alike." - Carmelena Brands Tomatoes website. (10)

So the next time you open up a can of imported San Marzano's, grow San Marzano tomatoes, and serve San Marzano tomatoes at your dinner table, you can impress your family and friends with the true and fascinating history of the most famous tomato in the world.

  

 

Article by
Jason L Morrow
Jan 10-25, 2010
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Please don't copy my article without a link/credit. Thanks.

 

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