Apr 02 2013

The Great San Marzano Tomato Fraud

The San Marzano is the king of the Italian sauce tomatoes. It’s a long, thin, meaty fruit with very little water and seeds. The flavour is sweet, tangy, and less acidic than Roma tomatoes. Anyone who watches food television or who follows celebrity chefs on social media will be familiar with the by-now-unequivocal refrain that “real” cooks only use San Marzano tomatoes in their sauces.

I say bullshit.

There are many varieties of Italian tomatoes, including the aforementioned Roma, and they all have a role to play in la cucina. The qualities that make San Marzanos so special are fairly subtle, and those subtleties diminish as the dish you prepare becomes more complex and the number of ingredients increases.

Given that a can of San Marzano tomatoes is typically two to three times more expensive than a can of similar quality Roma tomatoes, you’re throwing your money away if you’re using them in a complex dishes with many ingredients. Do you think they’re using real barolo at Babbo when they make their famous Brasato al Barolo? No, it’s a $4 domestic merlot (according to Bill Buford, in “Heat”). Does it make any difference? No!

The same applies when you’re making a huge pot of ragù Bolognese or your grandma’s 50-ingredient lasagna. Use the Romas because you’ll never be able to tell the difference.

On the other hand, if you’re making pizza, use a sauce of nothing more than lightly drained and blended (use a hand blender) canned San Marzanos with a bit of salt and olive oil. Don’t pre-cook it; spread it on raw. Compare a simple pizza Margherita made with San Marzanos versus one made with Romas and you will most definitely see the difference. (The Roma one will still be good, but the San Marzano one will be sublime and transcendant.)

Or make a fast and simple pasta dish by cooking down a can of San Marzanos with a bit of garlic. Cook it for less than ten minutes, and during the second half put a bunch of whole basil leaves in there. Then turn off the heat, remove the cooked basil, and tip in some just-cooked penne or other short pasta. Dress with a bit of olive oil, a fresh basil chiffonnade, and a bit of freshly grated pecorino or parmesan cheese. Again, it would be good with Romas, but it is mind-blowing with San Marzanos.

So the first level of San Marzano fraud is the idea that San Marzanos are necessarily and always better. No. San Marzanos are better when the dish is simple, features the tomato, and the tomato is as unmolested as possible. Otherwise, it makes little difference if you use San Marzanos or some other good Italian tomato.

There’s another level of fraud, and it has to do with the definition of “San Marzano.” Put your thinking hat on, because this gets a bit three-dimensional.

San Marzano” refers to two things; primarily it is a variety of tomato. But it also refers to a specific protected denomination of origin (or in Italian, Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta, or D.O.P.). That means it refers to the San Marzano variety of tomatoes that are harvested in August and September in a specific area of Campania, Italy (called, to no one’s surprise, “San Marzano sul Sarno“). In order to receive the D.O.P. stamp, the tomatoes must be:

  1. Of the San Marzano variety;
  2. grown in the San Marzano region;
  3. harvested by hand without mechanization.

Harvesting by hand is intended to ensure that the fruit is only picked when at its peak ripeness, with the not-quite-ripe ones left on the vine for later.

All this D.O.P. fussiness results in:

  • A very high standard of quality control.
  • A significantly higher price.
  • Something for annoying foodies to cling to and use to pass judgement over those who are less familiar with the San Marzano story.
  • A great way for tomato retailers to rip off the marginally informed (those for whom a little knowledge is a dangerous thing).

Here’s where it gets tricky. Because the foodie world is flush with all sorts of judgements about San Marzanos and those who do or do not use them, the demand for San Marzano tomatoes has skyrocketed. This includes the demand for domestically grown, non-D.O.P. ones, which are San Marzano in variety only, without the benefit of having been grown in that special volcanic soil near Mount Vesuvius, and without a guarantee of the quality controls during harvesting. Because of this high demand for the name and low understanding of what it means, a lot of domestic producers charge a premium price for their non-D.O.P. products.

Here in Montreal, most of the San Marzano tomatoes one finds in the stores are, indeed D.O.P., and they typically cost between $3.50 and $5.00 for a 28 ounce/800 gram can (versus anywhere from $1.00 to $1.89 for regular Italian tomatoes). I can understand domestic San Marzanos being a bit more expensive than regular Italian tomatoes, but there’s no way they should be premium priced along with the D.O.P. ones.

These available-in-Quebec “San Marzanos” are not D.O.P. San Marzanos! They generally run about $2 a can, which is a fair price.

In the United States, the most commonly seen brand of “San Marzano” tomatoes are these ones:

The most commonly seen brand of “San Marzanos” in the U.S. They are not D.O.P. so they shouldn’t be priced like D.O.P!

Watch any U.S.-produced TV show or online video where they mention San Marzanos, and that’s the label you’ll likely see. Do a Google image search on “san marzano tomatoes” and that’s the label that appears most frequently.

They are not D.O.P. San Marzanos. They are U.S.-grown, non-D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes. No doubt they are good tomatoes, probably better than most. But they are not D.O.P., so they should not be sold at D.O.P. prices. I picked up this can at a Whole Foods store in Pasadena, California recently. The price? $4.39!

In my opinion, this is a rip-off. I won’t go so far as to say “fraud,” because there is no fake D.O.P. stamp on the can, and the label does say “Grown Domestically in the USA.” However, the label more prominently says “POMIDORI PELATI” (or “POMIDORI CUBETTI” for the diced ones), which implies these are Italian tomatoes from Italy. And they are priced as if they were D.O.P. San Marzanos from Italy. Furthermore, the Whole Foods store did not carry any D.O.P San Marzanos, so these non-D.O.P. ones are your only choice if you have “San Marzano” buzzing in your head.

This is a rip-off. I don’t know if they are similarly overpriced in other stores, but it seems that Whole Foods – or perhaps the distributor of the tomatoes – are inflating the price because they know that many people will robotically buy San Marzano tomatoes simply because the foodies tell them to, and they will pay any price for them. It’s sort of a bait-and-switch, except it’s the foodie blogs and foodie television that set the bait, and Whole Foods does the switch (by not even offering true D.O.P. brands).

Compare that to Epicerie Milano, on Boul. St-Laurent in Montreal, where I can choose from at least seven brands of D.O.P. San Marzanos:

A selection of seven different brands of D.O.P. San Marzanos at Épicerie Milano, on Boul. St-Laurent in Montreal. Most are under $4.00.

In conclusion:

  • D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes really are better in simply-prepared dishes where the barely-cooked tomato is the main attraction.
  • For long-cooked dishes that contain a lot of ingredients (or strongly flavoured ingredients such as salty and fatty meats), you will likely not see the difference between San Marzano tomatoes and any good quality regular Italian tomatoes.
  • The best quality San Marzanos are from Italy, bearing the D.O.P. stamp. They are more expensive, but worth it for simple dishes (see the first point, above).
  • Non-D.O.P. San Marzanos can be very good, but you shouldn’t pay D.O.P. prices for them. If you’re going to pay D.O.P. prices, then buy D.O.P. tomatoes.

I encourage you to eat more tomatoes, both San Marzano and other varieties, and even non-D.O.P. San Marzanos. But be informed! Bon appetit!

Further reading:

5 comments so far

5 Comments on “The Great San Marzano Tomato Fraud”

  1. Jonathanon 03 Apr 2013 at 9:56 am

    Thanks for this rundown on a subject we both share a love of.

    At this point of the winter I’m just craving any good sauce tomato! A couple of weeks ago I watched (with mild disdain) as a co-shopper ceremonially (I thought) picked over a huge pile of plum tomatoes. Thinking I would set an example I quickly packed up a kilo only to find when we got home that most of them were punky and really about the worst I had ever purchased! Now I hold each one in my hand and weigh it, determined to get the best I can (I’ve learned my lesson).

    Totally agree about the pizza too. I think that Whole Foods marks everything up a lot! Last year I bought a large quantity of Quebec S.M.’s and they were a reasonable price, quite tasty too.

  2. the millineron 03 Apr 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Speaking of tomato sauce for pizza…The 2nd last time I made it, in addition to using San Marzano tomatoes, I also used the grassy tasting, good quality extra virgin olive oil we had on hand for salads.

    The sauce, and therefore pizza, was unbelievable. I was amazed at the difference from using san marz & the everyday extra virgin olive oil we use for cooking.

  3. blorkon 03 Apr 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Jonathan, don’t shy away from canned tomatoes. In fact, there are some people who believe that (good quality) canned tomatoes produce better sauces than fresh tomatoes. Heretical, yes, but sometimes we reach the truth through lateral thinking. Even if you don’t buy that idea wholesale, consider that good tomatoes, picked and canned in season, could very well be better than un-seasonal winter tomatoes that have been picked while under-ripe and shipped half way around the world.

    The Millier; Yes! That’s where the San Marzano really shines. Mmmm!

  4. Bethon 03 Apr 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Hooray for you for debunking the San Marzano scam! I’m all for using great, pricey tomatoes where they really shine but not as a rule in all Italian dishes like so many foodies seem to insist upon. As Jonathan says, one of the best sauce batches we ever made was from fresh SMs bought last fall, but I agree with you that canned tomatoes can be really really good. How about a taste-test some night of a selection of canned ones from Milano or Capitol?

  5. blorkon 04 Apr 2013 at 9:35 am

    Taste test! Also known as “spaghetti night!” :-)

    I’m already keeping a log of tomato brands, but it’s because my ideal can of Italian tomatoes has no added salt and comes in an un-lined can (to avoid BPA poisoning). While you can tell by reading the label if there’s salt, there’s no indication as to whether or not the cans are lined.

    I also prefer to avoid added citric acid, but I keep forgetting to log it. Although I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that had no added salt but added citric acid. I prefer the tomatoes to be thick and meaty, and the liquid they’re in to be thick and not watery.

    So far I’ve found the following brands to have good quality fruit, no added salt, and no lining:

    - Golosini
    - Molisana
    - Orgoglio*
    - Vivaci

    * I’m not 100% sure about the salt content of this one (forgot to log it), but the can has no lining.