San Marzano PDO (Protected Designation of Origin or DOP) tomatoes are one of the most emblematic products of Mediterranean cuisine and arguably the world’s finest for making sauces.
But with production costs almost 3 times higher than other pomodori pelati (peeled tomatoes) and a supply which nearly always runs out after a few months, what is it that makes these elongated plum tomatoes with pointy ends the undisputed Re dei pomodori?
Well, annoyingly for other tomatoes, they are one of those irksome types that swagger around managing to please everyone…
Producers are delighted: They have very few seeds and the peel practically falls off. It is the only type of pelato that fully keeps its shape and doesn’t break up during processing.
Consumers are thrilled: Real San Marzano PDOs enjoy a vibrant, rich and sweet taste with low acidity and a stirring bittersweet finale. This flavour profile really sparks into life when they are made into sauces. They’re healthy too; brimming with vitamins A, B and C and rich in Licopene, a fashionable antioxidant. It is also 90% water so you can eat lots of them without having to adjust your girdle.
Chefs are ecstatic: Their flesh is dense and meaty with superb consistency of texture and low acidity, while their vivid red colour really makes a sauce stand out. They have a growing reputation as the tomato of choice for chefs world-wide. The Pizza Association of Naples (the true home of pizza) recently ruled that for a pizza to be considered as real Pizza Napoletana only San Marzano DOP tomatoes can be used.
Location. Location. Location.
Production is limited to a small region around the town of San Marzano, from Pompeii to Paestum, on the beautiful foothills of Mount Vesuvius. The mineral-rich volcanic soil and Mediterranean climate provide the perfect environment for growing tomatoes. This setting, combined with the expertise of resident farmers who have been crossing local varietals for decades, has culminated in the San Marzano as we know it today.
Regardless of the costs involved, PDO production rules call for vertical cultivation, using wires attached to wooden supports, and harvesting must be done manually. In simple terms it’s a bit like growing them in your back garden with a stick and a bit of string. Of course that’s fine if you have half a dozen plants, but imagine if you have 150,000 of them! You might have to get your neighbour to help out.
The Great San Marzano Swindle
We mentioned San Marzanos like to please everyone. Unfortunately they are also a counterfeiter’s dream. With demand at least 10 times higher than the total production, it is sadly inevitable some suspect companies will stick labels onto unbranded tomatoes using the San Marzano name and the “D.O.P” seal next to it.
The Consorzio of San Marzano (www.consorziopomodorosanmarzanodop.it) tries its best to stop the fraudsters but can only do so much. It is said that only 5% of San Marzano tomatoes on sale in the US are actually PDO! Here are some easy ways to spot the scam:
Canned San Marzano PDO tomatoes are only ever produced as whole or filleted. So if you see any which are pureed, chopped, diced, with ingredients added, ready-made into a sauce or even organic, then they are not the real deal. They will always come in a can which states ‘Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino D.O.P.’ together with a unique and traceable serial number and the Consortium logo.
San Marzano Timeline
1770s A popular story recounts how the first plants to arrive in the area were a gift from the Kingdom of Peru to the Kingdom of Naples. However this is unlikely, as there wasn’t a King of Peru at that time and Peruvian tomatoes were small and green! It is more likely that they originated from Spanish stock and after years of varietal crossing, the San Marzano has evolved.
1875 The first processing and canning facility is opened near Naples by Francesco Cirio. San Marzanos can now be shipped all around Italy.
1900s First export documents appear listing San Marzano tomatoes.
1920s Much evidence of San Marzano across Southern Europe including sale of seeds.
1970s Sales of the poor San Marzano plummet as more resistant and cheaper plum tomatoes come to the fore and large-scale businesses seek quantity not quality.
1990s The San Marzano re-emerges as a new generation of consumers and chefs demand higher quality products.
1996 It is granted PDO status, which means much greater protection and control over production and quality.
1999 PDO status officially ratified by the EU and the Consortium is founded.
2009 Mediterranean Direct gets its first stock of San Marzano PDO tomatoes! 🙂
Where can I buy San Marzano Tomatoes?
If you want to try some genuine San Marzano PDO tomatoes for yourselves, you can find them here.
And after reading all this you deserve a medal a little something. If you enter the code SANBLOG during checkout, you’ll get 10% off the King of tomatoes!