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 diffused with other ingredients.

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 complicated 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 drained and lightly 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 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 minced shallot or a touch of garlic. Cook it for less than ten minutes, and during the second half add a bunch of whole basil leaves. 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, emphasizes 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.

Now that that’s settled, there’s another level of fraud you should know about, 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 and consistent standard of quality.
  • 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 judgement 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 used in 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. – and thus non-premium –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, and a few premium non-San Marzanos tipping the till at $2.49). 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, possibly better than most. But they are not D.O.P., so they should not be sold at D.O.P. prices. I picked up the can seen here 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:


Mar 23 2013

10 Years of Cassandra Pages

The noise in the blogosphere has long surpassed the signal, which may explain the decline in relevance of the “personal blog.” Where once the platform was largely about personal writing and exploration, blogging now is a vehicle for competitive foodieism, personal branding, and all forms of marketing.

This shift was inevitable, so there’s no point in complaining about it. Fortunately, many personal blogs still soldier on, including this one (although in my case “limp” would be a better choice of verb). Some toil in obscurity, others attract a bit of attention by issuing screeds and rants. And then there’s The Cassandra Pages, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last week.

The Cassandra Pages is written by Beth Adams, who I’ve been privileged to know as a friend for much of that ten years. Martine and I met Beth when she and her husband Jon showed up at a YULBlog meeting some time around 2004. (It might have been 2003, or even 2005; I have a terrible sense of time past, a gift I inherited from my father.) She and Jon were engaged in a very slow process of moving to Montreal from their home in Vermont where they’d lived together for 30 years. I was attracted to them immediately, partially because their story was so different from the others at YULBlog, but mostly because of their genuine warmth, intelligence, and curiosity.

Since then I have had the triple pleasure of knowing them as friends, seeing Jon’s photographs, and reading Beth’s blog. Don’t go there for rants or shopping advice. Turn away if you’re only interested in tech noise or social platitudes. The Cassandra Pages is a ten year (and onward) personal writing space for Beth’s experimentation and expression, and for your reading pleasure. It strikes that rare note of being a personal blog – based on a life being lived and the observations made along the way – while remaining approachable and relevant to anyone who cares to read it. As with good memoir writing, it never comes of as being “all about me.” Rather, it’s about us; the “we” that forms when a writer connects with her readers, and readers see truth and thoughtful inquiry in a writer’s impressions.

Congratulations Beth, on 10 years of The Cassandra Pages!

Categorized under Weblogs,Writing

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Jan 01 2013

Reading List: Books I Read in 2012

As per tradition, here’s my list of books I read in the year just ended (in this case, 2012), listed alphabetically by author:

  • The Crossroads, by Niccolo Ammaniti *
  • Ed the Happy Clown, by Chester Brown (Graphic novel)
  • World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks *
  • The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, by Scott Carney *
  • The Awakening, by Kate Chopin *
  • The Serpent and the Rainbow, by Wade Davis
  • A Partisan’s Daughter, by Louis de Bernieres
  • Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt *
  • Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Falada
  • The Confidential Agent, by Graham Greene
  • Plunder and Pillage: Atlantic Canada’s Brutal and Bloodthirsty Pirates and Privateers, by Harold Horwood
  • Eight Worlds of C.M. Kornbluth, by C.M. Kornbluth
  • The Thieves of Manhattan, by Adam Langer
  • Solar, by Ian MacEwan
  • After the Apocalypse, by Maureen McHugh *
  • Incident at Vichy, by Arthur Miller
  • Devil in a Blue Dress, by Walter Mosley

* e-book.

A few notes:

17 titles, which is an improvement over last year’s abysmal low of nine and nowhere near my 2007 high of 38. However, as with last year, I did read much, much more medium- and long-form journalism than in earlier years, thanks to my iPad and Instapaper.

I put down, unfinished, only one book last year: James Wolcott’s Lucking Out. I had bought it in hardcover, at full price, based on the rattlingly good first chapter. By half way through it had deteriorated into a dull “been there done that” and celebrity roll-call. At least that’s how it felt. I didn’t throw it across the room or anything, I just set it down one night and never picked it up again.

As usual, I read way more men than women. And as usual, I will offer no explanation for this.

Most of the books on the list are not what you’d call “current.” I’m not one to obsess over best-seller lists nor do I feel a need to read “the latest thing.” I buy and read according to what strikes my fancy as I’m browsing, and there’s generally a significant lag between my buying a book and actually reading it. For paper-based books this is, on average, about two years, but it’s not unusual for it to stretch to ten or more. Unusually, most of the books I read in 2012 were actually purchased in 2012.

Six out of the 17 were e-books. This is higher than in previous years because I obtained a Kobo e-reader this past June. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it, and I’m considering going back to the iPad for book reading (or in this case, my new iPad Mini). I might go into detail on the problems of e-readers in a later blog post.

[Previous years’ reading lists.]

Categorized under Moi


Dec 27 2012


The Blork Blog turns twelve years old today. Loyal readers will have noticed that I post a lot less than I used to back in the glory days, but this sucker still has a pulse.  There are 65 half-written (and for the most part, no longer  relevant) unpublished “drafts” mouldering away in here, plus another dozen or so sketches of  posts in my various virtual scratch pads. But for reasons that likely don’t need explaining I have trouble drumming up the enthusiasm to see them through.

Perhaps this will change in 2013, or perhaps not. Personal blogs are largely irrelevant these days, with Twitter taking care of linkage and brain farts, and the dreadful Facebook taking care of pretty much everything else. But as you know, the pendulum swings in both directions, so perhaps there will be a resurgence of relevance, or at least interest, or maybe I’ll get inspired to completely change the direction of this space.

I’ll most definitely post my last-year’s reading list some time in January, as that’s been a tradition since 2003. After that, we’ll see.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of my cat:

The Mini doesn’t like the direction this blog is taking.

Categorized under Cats,Moi,Weblogs


Aug 28 2012

The Squirt Gun: a Parable

True story: when I was seven years old I had a squirt gun that I really loved. It was a big yellow plastic thing that held about a litre of water and shot a stream long and true when the trigger was squeezed. One day my big brother — three years older — was teasing and annoying me for some reason that no longer matters. He wouldn’t let up, and my protests went unheard by anyone in a position to make him stop.

Finally, at the end of my rope, I threatened to smash my beloved squirt gun against a pile of rocks if he didn’t stop teasing me. Developmental psychologists will tell you that at seven years old, our sense of personal agency is very poorly developed, and we don’t have the intellectual or emotional capacity to realize that the world does not revolve around us. Destroying my squirt gun was a completely pointless threat, as I was the only one who would suffer; but in my immature and egocentric mind everyone would suffer if I suffered. Therefore, my brother would surely stop teasing me in order to avoid our mutual suffering.

He didn’t stop, so I threw my yellow plastic squirt gun against the rocks and watched in horror as it shattered. The episode concluded with me fleeing the scene, bawling hysterically. My brother didn’t suffer at all, and I suffered greatly.

My self-immolation was entirely without benefit. While it did put a short-term stop to my brother’s teasing, it was replaced by a greater suffering at the loss of my squirt gun and at my confusion and anguish over what had transpired.

And it didn’t stop my brother from teasing me the next time he was so inclined.

Whenever I hear about Quebec students boycotting classes as part of their ongoing protest against tuition increases, I think of this. It has nothing to do with my inconclusive feelings about the issue, and nothing to do with the evening marches and other actions. It’s just about the boycotting of classes.

Boycotting classes achieves nothing. It applies no pressure to anyone. There is no leverage at work. If the students were protesting the universities and CEGEPs themselves it would be different, or if they were protesting their teachers, or the curriculum. But they’re protesting the government. Staying out of school doesn’t put any pressure on the government. And it gives the appearance that what the students are fighting for — education — is not something they really care about very much.

The only people to suffer from the boycotting of classes are the students who miss their classes.

This is a bit of an old story now, and the boycott of classes seems to be evaporating as the fall semester begins and the election looms. Think of this blog as the sober second afterthought.

PS: For those of you who read too quickly and with only one eye on the text, this should not be seen as an attempted refutation of the cause of the student protesters. It’s just a comment on this one tactic. There are many ways to make their point that actually does put pressure on their target (the government), such as the street protests that received so much news coverage. They could also protest directly at government offices, or engage in a handful of other direct actions. The point being that if you’re protesting against party A, you protest in a way that bothers party A. There is no point in bothering party B, especially when party B is yourself.

Update: Perhaps this story is not so old, as it seems the “strike” is picking up again now that the fall semester is starting.

One comment

Jul 14 2012

How to Walk on a Bicycle Path

First of all, don’t. You shouldn’t walk or run on a bicycle path. Hardly ever. I want to be clear about that. But I say “hardly ever” because there are a few circumstances when it may be grudgingly permissible. For example:

  • If there is sidewalk construction or the sidewalk is otherwise blocked and you have little choice but to use the bicycle path.
  • In some less urban areas where there are bicycle paths that exist on their own, with no pedestrian path nearby. I can’t begrudge runners and pedestrians using those. (More on this at the bottom of this post.)
  • If the path is clearly marked as a shared pedestrian/bicycle path.

I spend a lot of time cycling on the various bicycle paths in and around Montreal, and I see pedestrians on them frequently. It’s really annoying when people choose to walk or run in the bicycle path when there is a pedestrian path right next to it. This is not a rare thing; I see it all the time. In many cases it’s when a parallel set of paths run through a park and the bicycle path is paved and the pedestrian path is gravel. It seems that people who don’t think much about what they’re doing will gravitate towards the paved one, just because it’s paved.

But this isn’t about whether or not you should be walking or running on a bicycle path. That’s a separate discussion. This is about those times when, for whatever reason, you choose to do so. This is about the preferred, and safest, way to do it.

It’s simple. Walk against the bicycle traffic.

No, this isn’t a joke. It comes from the same wisdom that says if you’re walking on the shoulder of a road you should walk facing the traffic. The reason is simple:

The most important thing is that the pedestrian and the cyclist see each other.

It’s like this; when you walk with the cycling traffic (i.e., in the same lane as bicycles going in your direction), you can’t see the bicycles in your lane coming. You probably can’t hear them either, based on my observation that at least 50% of pedestrians on a bicycle path are wearing earphones. The result is you get the crap scared out of you every time a bicycle whizzes past, because you didn’t know it was coming.

Now let’s consider it from the cyclist’s point of view. You’re cycling along and you see a pedestrian up ahead. As you get closer you see the person is in your lane, walking in the same direction as you (with their back to you). You know they can’t see you. You ding your little bell, but you don’t know if they heard you. You slow down a bit, but you need to get past them. You’re worried that they will make a sudden random step to the left — into your passing lane — because they don’t realize you’re coming up behind them and wanting to pass. Or you’re worried they’ll realize at the last second that there’s a bicycle behind them and try to jump out of the way, to the left, right in front of you.

Don’t laugh. Every single time I come up behind a pedestrian in my lane on a bicycle path who is not facing me, I suffer those worries. That means dozens of times a week.

Now think about what happens when you do it the way I suggest. A pedestrian is on the path, facing oncoming bicycle traffic. Both parties can tell from a hundred feet away that they are aware of each other. The pedestrian has ample opportunity to step off of the path for a moment while the bicycle passes, or if for some reason they can’t, the cyclist simply changes lanes and passes by without any worry that the pedestrian will suddenly jump or move.

It’s as simple as that. Walk facing the oncoming bicycle traffic because it is safer and better for everyone.


I know a lot of people will completely ignore everything I just said because they can’t get past the initial argument of whether or not people should walk or run on a bicycle path. I don’t plan on engaging in that discussion because it’s one of those issues, like religion, where the more vocal people are, the more blinkered they tend to be, so there’s no point in even talking to them.

However, I suspect some people might be curious about cases (or more precisely, places) where I don’t really object to people walking or running on a bicycle path. Here are two of them:

Case # 1: South Shore, along the river

On the south shore of Montreal (which is actually east, but Montreal has a strange relationship with geography) there’s a long and reasonably well kept bicycle path that runs along the Saint Lawrence river from Boucherville to Brossard. The stretch that runs for a couple of kilometres south of the Jacques Cartier bridge is quite isolated, and there is no pedestrian path. To the east is a bit of grass, then a fence, then a major highway. To the west is a bit of grass, then a rough slope down to the water.

It’s a great place to go for a run, walk, or bicycle ride, and I do not begrudge anyone from using that path for any of those purposes. You can see the path somewhat in Google Streetview, if you look on the left.

Case # 2: Lachine Canal

There are a few stretches of the Lachine Canal bicycle path that do not have a corresponding pedestrian path, such as the area around the McAusalan brewery. There’s lots of grass, and it’s quite spacious, but I can’t blame people who are travelling on foot for stepping onto the path. I did that myself one day last summer when I was walking along there. At first I thought I’d be all “correct” and walk in the grass, but when you’re hoofing it for more than a few feet, walking in the grass can get annoying. (I’m not talking about idyllic strolls with your sweetie, I mean when you want to get from point A to point B). So I walked on the path, facing traffic, and I stepped off the path whenever a bicycle approached.

You can see it in this photo from Google Maps (give it a few seconds for the photo to load).

Afterword 2

Walking through Parc Lafontaine yesterday, I spotted this sad scene. Pedestrians on the bicycle path (not so unusual) and a bicycle on the pedestrian path.

pedestrians on bike path, bikes on pedestrian path

Categorized under Environment,Health,Montreal,PSA


May 08 2012

The Great Caramelized Onions Debate

There’s been a kerfuffle over the past week around the issue of caramelized onions and whether or not they can be made in a short period of time, such as ten or fifteen minutes. (What you missed it?)

It started with this article on Slate.com, in which Tom Scocca complains that “recipe writers” lie about how long it takes to brown/caramelize onions (he uses the terms interchangeably). That caused a bit of a roar here and there, with some people agreeing with him that it takes at least 40 minutes to caramelize onions, and some disagreeing.

I can’t say I followed the issue very closely, as I’ve always been in the “low and slow” camp; my caramelized onions take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, and I have many better things to do with my time than argue something like this. Then Jacob Burton of StellaCulinary.com weighed in, creating a somewhat annoying but quite informative video in which he proves that onions can be “caramelized” in ten minutes.

He raises some very good points about the kind of pan that is used and whatnot. However, I am not convinced. I absolutely do believe that Jacob Burton browned those onions in ten minutes, but that’s not the issue. The issue is one of terminology:

“Browning” and “caramelizing” are not exactly the same thing.

What Burton created was a really nice pan full of browned, fried onions. This is in contrast with what many people (myself included) refer to as “caramelized” onions, which are slow cooked for a long time. The result is something quite different. Fried onions have both a sharp and a mellow flavour, and a strong aroma. (Everyone loves the smell of fried onions!) Caramelized onions–and perhaps I should be specific and say slow caramelized onions–have a much mellower and sweeter flavour and a more low key, almost buttery aroma. The flavour of slow caramelized onions is hardly oniony at all; in some ways it’s more like baked apples in butter. (If you’re really patient, you can go for deep caramelized onions, like these.)

I suspect that back in Julia Childs’ day, few people confused the two. It was clear that fried onions were fried onions and caramelized onions were caramelized onions, the same way we distinguish between roasted meat and braised meat. But few people make the distinction now. I speculate it’s because “caramelized” sounds fancier and “fried” is like a swear word in some circles. With the rise of the “foodies,” and all the half-informed and competitive bombast that came with it, the result is that “caramelized” is now used whenever you apply heat to onions and make them turn colour.

Let’s drill down a bit more: Wikipedia makes a distinction between caramelization and the Maillard reaction. In brief, the Maillard reaction is:

…a form of nonenzymatic browning. It results from a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring heat.

And caramelization is:

… the browning of sugar, a process used extensively in cooking for the resulting nutty flavor and brown color. As the process occurs, volatile chemicals are released, producing the characteristic caramel flavor.

Sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it? The caramelization article goes on:

Like the Maillard reaction, caramelization is a type of non-enzymatic browning. However, unlike the Maillard reaction, caramelization is pyrolysis, as opposed to reaction with amino acids.

Aha! I’m no chemist, but based on the Wikipedia description of pyrolysis:

Pyrolysis is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures without the participation of oxygen.

And there, perhaps, lies the difference. Most recipes for slow caramelized onions call for low heat in a covered pan. That’s nowhere near an oxygen free environment, but it’s a lot less oxygen rich than something sizzling in an open pan over high heat with a lot of stirring. (You need to read the whole article to get the full picture, but suffice to say that my recipe for slow caramelized onions uses a very moist environment, exactly what is needed for pyrolysis.)

I won’t go on with the technical stuff because there are plenty of people on Reddit who will gladly dedicated their dying breath to the splitting of such hairs. I’ll leave it to them.

My point is that when you fry onions fast and hot, you get a different plate of food than when you cook them slowly under low heat. Both are good, but they are different. And because they are different, they should have different names.

I propose “fried onions” and “caramelized onions.”