San Marzano Tomatoes

by Leslie Stauffer on June 29, 2011

San Marzano: Legendary Tomatoes

It is because San Marzano tomatoes are known by food lovers everywhere to make the best tomato sauces and pastes that we at Pennmac stock a wide variety of them. But what is it about these tomatoes that make them so different from the other cans of tomatoes on the shelf?

Legend has it that San Marzano tomato seeds were a gift from the King of Peru to the King of Naples during the mid 1700s and that the King of Naples planted the seeds in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. There, the rich volcanic soil helped produce the perfect plum tomato. As Peru wasn’t a kingdom at the time, this story appears to be just that: a fanciful tale. That a humble tomato would cause people to spin such stories, however, is a testament to its extraordinary flavor.

San Marzano Tomatoes: Flavor and Texture

So what is it about San Marzano tomatoes that make them so highly sought after? The flavor is sweeter and less acidic than the average tomato, with a high density and pectin level. Compared to other paste tomatoes, it has fewer seeds, is brighter red, and is easier to peel. The high density and pectin level allow the sauce to cook down quickly, preserving the flavor, while the heat brings out the sweetness of the tomato.

Growing San Marzano Tomatoes

The San Marzano tomato’s flavor can be attributed to many features, both genetic and environmental. The volcanic soil mentioned in legend actually does play a part in the flavor of the tomato, even making the taste distinctive from the other regions of Italy growing similar seeds. Additionally, great care is used when working with the plant and fruit. The plant is delicate, and carefully staked up. Unable to withstand rough handling, the tender fruit is handpicked. Some sources even state hand-picking the fruits at night yield a better tasting tomato.

The genetics of the plant are closely monitored, using DNA testing to establish a true San Marzano plant. Taking such strides to determine the integrity of a tomato might seem silly at a first glance. Due to the high market value of San Marzano tomatoes, however, fraudulent product is often marketed as authentic. In 2010 alone, 1.2 million Euros worth of fraudulent tomato product was confiscated.

San Marzano Tomatoes and D.O.P. Requirements

This iconic tomato is protected by the D.O.P. label of Italy. The D.O.P label serves to authenticate region specific food, and hold it to a high standard. For the San Marzano tomato, it has been established that the plant must be of San Marzano background and grown within the Valle del Sarno region of Italy to be D.O.P. certified.

Brands of San Marzano tomatoes vary, though the most prominent brands are La Bella, and La Valle.

La Bella Tomato products are grown in San Marzano and are highly regarded among food circles. They are not legally allowed to label their products as San Marzano tomatoes, as they are grown outside of the legally protected San Marzano Tomato growing area. They make a variety of products, from whole peeled plum or pear tomatoes to tomato puree.

La Valle San Marzano Tomato products are grown in the Valle del Sarno region of San Marzano, and as such are able to be D.O.P. certified. Also highly regarded among food labels, this brand may be the most difficult to find within the United States. They also offer a variety of products, from organic peeled tomatoes to pastes and purees.

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