Saturday, February 19, 2011

SAN MARZANO TOMATOES

Foodies and connoisseur's 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.
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.
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.' 
Documented evidence of the San Marzano makes it's first appearance in 1902. According to Italian documents the San Marzano is 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. 
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 Pignataro).
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 rsweet 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).

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