Debunking the San Marzano tomato

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The tomato is one of those foods that many countries have appropriated; China, Italy and Mexico all boast about their tomatoes. But is there really a perfect tomato? Reporter Arthur Allen set out to find out in Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato.

Pati Jinich: Is there some irony in the title of your book, Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato? We all know from reading the news, especially here in the U.S., that tomato growers, especially in Florida, do not let their tomatoes get ripe.

Arthur Allen: I don't think there is really a perfect tomato; the perfect tomato just presents itself in front of you on some magical day. But yes, in Florida they've been running these farms for about 40 or 50 years this way, where they pick the tomatoes green -- and I mean green and hard as baseballs. And it's come to be where they are producing 60 percent of their tomatoes there for the fast food market. There's a certain kind of thing that you want on a McDonald's hamburger, which is a very thinly sliced tomato that doesn't get the bun all soggy, but you can get a lot of slices out of one tomato. And that's increasingly what they've converted their tomato-growing operations into there. I think they're trying to improve like everyone is, but it's a sad story.

PJ: So they're looking for endurance in transportation?

AA: Yes, big tomatoes and hard tomatoes that will travel well.

PJ: The tomato seems to be one of those ingredients that many countries have appropriated. Mexicans say it comes from Mexico, but Italians boast about their San Marzano tomatoes. I hear now from you that the Chinese are also very proud of their tomatoes. In all your travels -- you went to China, Italy and Mexico -- was there anything that struck you as being very different in the way most people in each country viewed or perceived the tomato?

AA: In the opening of the book, I say that people in the United States used to throw tomatoes at politicians -- now they throw politics at tomatoes. Everywhere there are all these debates: Is it local? Is it a hybrid? Is it this, that and the other thing?

But when you go to Italy, tomatoes are so important to their food culture. All they really care about is the flavor. So it turns out that in Italy, for example, the best tomato that everybody was telling me about when I was going over there was the Pachino tomato. I looked around and it turns out Pachino is down in Sicily, where the allies invaded in 1943 -- this tiny little piece of Sicily that gets a lot of sun all year round. And I went there and the guy told me, "Yes, the best tomato here is a tomato that was bred in Israel." In Italy, they don't really care if it's organic. People care about the environment, obviously, but whether it's organic is not important.

PJ: What's the big deal with San Marzanos?

AA: I was going to ask you that. I really don't get it myself. I think they are perfectly OK, but I was given a taste test in the town of Battipaglia by a famous pizza maker. He gave me a real San Marzano, a hybrid San Marzano and other tomatoes. To me, the San Marzanos are kind of insipid. He said it was delicato. I was like, well I guess one person's delicato is another person's insipid.

PJ: You just saved us a lot of money.

AA: Glad to be of service.

PJ: Where did you find the best-tasting tomato?

AA: It really happened when I was down at very southern tip of Baja, Calif., at this organic tomato farm that was set up by this incredibly idealistic American couple. It was basically taken over by and worked by all these Mexican farmers who were owners of small amounts of land. They were growing mostly cherry tomatoes.

One day we went out to this field in the middle of nowhere, and the whole place was covered with these golden berries. They were just the most amazing thing I'd ever tasted; it was like mango and cantaloupe with a bit of tart, but really sweet. It turned out that something had gone wrong and they had to turn off the water because it was leaking. They hadn't harvested any of these tomatoes because they figured they were all spoiled. It turned out that somehow, the combination of the time of year, the soil, and the fact that they'd turned off the water a little earlier than usual made them perfect.

PJ: What did you want people to take away from this book?

AA: That it's not a good idea to be dogmatic about food. I think being local is great and I think it's great to support local farms -- and everyone finds a small farm more appealing than a big farm. But there are some things that bigger farms do better, and it's never going to change. When you're making tomato paste, I've seen these operations where they make tons and tons of this stuff every minute, and I admire those people as well. I'm not a very dogmatic person; the flavor is really important and basic respect for other people in food as in other areas of life.

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