Sugo, Salsa, Marinara, and Red Gravy
It’s the time of year when I sit at my desk with a bowl of cherry tomatoes at my side. As I ponder the text in front of me, my hand automatically reaches out for yet another of the sweet-tart treasures. Such inspiration they deliver! Red ones, yellow ones, and the ones with a sort of dappled striped surface, orange with red streaks down the side. I inhale the curious, pungent, somewhat spicy fragrance of fresh, raw tomato, hard to describe but recognizable in certain kinds of olive oil, especially Spanish picual when it’s well-made (which sometimes it is not). Olive oil descriptors include tomato, green tomato, and tomato leaf, all distinctive, all carrying that memory of late summer and tomatoes.
As far as I’m concerned, there are only two kinds of tomatoes—fresh, raw ones and canned ones, the kind Italian cooks often call pelati, meaning peeled. They too come in many different variations, but I don’t even count crushed or diced, fire roasted or pureed.
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Gustarosso: red San Marzanos on a red plastic plate
I want my canned tomatoes, the commercial ones I mean, to be whole or at most just cut in half, and I want, above all and when I can get them, the true San Marzanos from the area around Naples.
A few years ago, I spent some time in late October in that region, the Agro Nocerino Sarnese (also called the Agro Sarnese-Nocerino, take your pick). Lying to the east of Naples and Salerno on the west coast of Italy, this broad, low plain spreads like a flared skirt below the flanks of Vesuvius, the still-active volcano looming over the landscape.
Vesuvius has erupted periodically over the centuries, most recently in March of 1944; dark soil from its weathered slopes washes down in annual winter rains, eroding into the plain below to build up deep, mineral-rich layers of soil, almost soot-black in places, that is the source of some of the most fertile farmland in all of Italy. It’s not a big area—just 16 small towns in all, most in the province of Salerno though two are in Naples (that is, Naples the province, not Naples the city). The farmland here is subdivided into a vast patchwork of very small plots, often back-to-back, linked by irrigation channels that feed off the clear, cool, spring-fed waters of the Sarno River. Rather like Burgundy’s Cote d’Or wine region in France, however, each little plot is treasured for the riches it produces. And among the most notable of those riches is the San Marzano del’Agro Sarnese Nocerino, a near-mythical tomato with an obscure history and a cult following among serious cooks that is as often contested as it is proclaimed.
I stopped off there specifically to check in with friends at Danicoop, a cooperative of about a hundred small farmers that produces the prized tomatoes under the Gustarosso brand. San Marzano is not itself a brand (although, confusingly, there is indeed a brand called “San Marzano,” produced in California and available in US markets). Instead, it is a variety, like beefsteak, green zebra, or Brandywine. And although it’s a perfectly good tomato to eat raw with a sprinkle of salt and a dribble of olive oil, San Marzanos are really esteemed for preserving or canning whole, which is what Gustarosso does with them. That’s because of two characteristics—a thin skin that makes the tomatoes easy to peel (and difficult to harvest) and thick but juicy flesh that remains compact without the need to add extras, such as calcium chloride, a firming agent that’s customarily used for canned tomatoes produced in the U.S. and elsewhere. (Citric acid, a natural preservative, is added to Gustarosso and other brands to heighten the acid balance of the fruits.)
These particular San Marzanos, grown in this soil, also come with a coveted DOP or Denominazione di Origine Protetta (“protected denomination of origin”), the coveted designation that is guaranteed by both the Italian state and the European Union. Only these fruits can be called DOP San Marzano del’Agro Sarnese Nocerino. When you buy a can of tomatoes with that on the label, you know what you are getting.
Take a look at some American websites, however, and you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Panels of tasters regularly assess the virtues of this tomato or that tomato, this olive oil or that, this mayonnaise, this tahini, this gochujang. Why are we so obsessed with these rankings? I reckon it’s partly an almost overwhelming American need to show that we know more than anyone else and no one’s gonna put something over on us. All too frequently, it seems, these tasting panels are made up of people who simply work for the publication but are not true experts; without really understanding what they should be looking for, they tend to award kudos to a standard all-American flavor profile that’s more notable for sweetness than anything else. One such (far be it from me to mention names) recently rated San Marzanos very low for both taste and texture, compared to favorite U.S. brands, which they tout for sweet taste and firm consistency, the former quality the result of added sugar, the latter of added calcium chloride. When I taste San Marzanos against other tomatoes, both Italian and U.S., what I taste is a complex sweet-tart balance with a pleasing hint of bitterness in the after-taste. What I taste, in fact, is a quality I can only define as “tomato,” pure and simple. For me, these are the best for all the many uses to which canned tomatoes lend themselves, especially in Italian cooking.
Of course, the simplest and purest of all is that classic of Italian cuisine, pasta al pomodoro, and that’s what Lina Robustelli served us for lunch the day I visited with my daughter and friends.
It was a very plain pasta--spaghetti from nearby Gragnano, a town as notable for its pasta as the Agro Sarnese is for its tomatoes, cooked molto al dente and served with nothing but tomatoes, crushed into a sauce and enhanced with a little garlic, olive oil, a scattering of grated parmigiano, and big green leaves of fresh basil. I look at that combination and I think, no wonder the Italian flag is red, white and green, the colors of the national dish.
Together with her husband Vincenzo Aufiero, Lina farms one of those small, rich plots of land in the Agro Sarnese where they grow primarily the prized San Marzanos, long, slender, pear-shaped fruits with a characteristic point at the end. Through Danicoop, their tomatoes are processed and marketed under the Gustarosso brand.
Tomatoes are their number one crop but that’s not all the couple grows. That October morning we found Vincenzo out in the field, handily tying up escarole plants, one by one, to protect the leaves from sunlight and blanch them the pale color the market demands. Earlier that day, he had set out baby fennel plants to be ready in December and January.
finocchio, fennel plants set out to grow in the black soil of the Sarno
And there was another harvest he happily showed off—fresh water crayfish, foraged from the irrigation canal that feeds off the Sarno river, kept caged in a tank until time to enjoy them. He stuck a hand in the cage and came up with one of the miniature lobsters dangling harmlessly from his index finger.
As well as growing San Marzanos for Gustarosso, Vincenzo and Lina, like almost every farmer I’ve ever met in Italy, also grow tomatoes for the family table. And like all the other farm families I know, they put up their own tomatoes for the winter pantry. Together, they produce around 500 jars of these in September when the San Marzanos are at peak ripeness.
That’s in addition to harvesting the ones for the coop, which are collected by hand, one by one, over a period of several weeks as the fruits gradually ripen on the stout stalks. (Another reason for the high quality of Gustarosso canned tomatoes—each one has been hand-harvested, unlike others that are subject to the battering of machine harvesting.)
La pomarola, home-canned tomatoes
As Lina dressed the steaming bowl of pasta with bright tomato sauce, Vincenzo sat down next to me at the table and held out a liter-size glass jar filled with the tomatoes they had put up at the end of the summer. “I’m the last one to do this,” he said heavily. “My father used to do it. My grandfather used to do it. But after me, there won’t be any more.” He tilted the jar to show me the peeled whole tomatoes, their oblong shapes tightly packed together inside. Called pelati (meaning “peeled”) in Italian, they were enveloped in their own dark-red juices, which formed a dense sauce around the bright fruits.
But why is he the last of his line to do this?
“I have two daughters,” he explained to me. “They’re both married. One lives in Napoli, the other in Rome. They both have jobs too.”
And they don’t come home any more?
“Oh, they come home,” Lina interjected. She paused in the act of dishing up plates of pasta. “They love to come back here. They love the food, they love the air, they love this place.” This place was actually a small concrete-block building, a bit more structured than a shed, three or four rooms where Vincenzo and Lina take refuge from the fields. Here they can make a quick lunch without interrupting the garden work too much, or lie down to rest and take refuge from the sun at the hottest time of the day. Here too they sometimes entertain visitors like us with a very simple lunch in the middle of the work day. And here they also put up those 500 jars of tomatoes every year (a number of which actually go to their daughters), along with other garden truck set aside for the winter, including ropes of onions and garlic now hanging from beams along the walls.
“But,” Vincenzo went on, “the girls don’t want to be tomato farmers. They have enough to do in their lives. They don’t need this place.”
So when Vincenzo and Lina are no longer able to cultivate it, what will happen to this prized piece of land that lies almost beneath the southbound lane of the A30 autostrada?
Piero Ruggiero, managing director of the coop, assures me that the land will not go into development, even though all around the Agro Sarnese there are vast stretches of apartment blocks, four and five stories tall, and all the junky kinds of commercial enterprises that seem to go along with them, no matter where in the world one finds oneself. I imagine you could find something very similar outside Ankara and I know you can find the same thing in much of southern India, not to mention North and South America. Wherever you go in the world, it seems, agricultural land, often land that has been cultivated successfully for a couple of millennia, is being turned into the most horrific developments. And not horrific only from an aesthetic standpoint either. In fact, most of the development is deeply, almost irrevocably polluting of the land. Here in the Sarno valley, the tomato cultivation region is well upstream and draws on the fairly pristine resources of the river. But as that same river moves past the San Marzano area, heading downstream over the short 26 kilometers before it meets the sea in the bay of Naples, it becomes one of the most polluted rivers in all of Italy.
Our lunch, of course, came from those same fields: two different kinds of radishes made a welcome addition to our lunch table to go with thick slabs of bread and the ham Vincenzo had cured, and then spaghetti from nearby Gragnano, and the tomato sauce straight out of the jar, cooked with garlic and oil. A final garnish of grated cheese (just a little) and torn fresh basil leaves topped the pasta as it was served. To die for? No, this was very much a meal to live for
Pasta al pomodoro San Marzano con formaggio e basilico
This is the old-fashioned satisfaction of the Italian countryside, where you eat next to the fields you cultivate and you eat directly from the products you grow in those fields, whether radishes or tomatoes. It goes all the way back to the old Latin writers, Horace, Cato, Columella, and others, who wrote about the importance of taking care of farmland and the pleasures of the simple rural life. I think of course of Horace with his meal of chickpeas, leeks, and laganum--was that a flatbread? or was it perhaps an ur-pasta? The experts differ.
Whatever Horace ate in the quiet of his country dining room, however, tomatoes were not a part of the meal. They would not be part of any Italian meal for a good many centuries to come. It’s hard to believe today when tomatoes play such an important role in kitchens and on tables all over Italy, but there was a time when the New World fruit was unknown. The Spanish were the first Europeans to encounter tomatoes when they conquered Mexico. Not surprisingly, it was the Spanish who brought tomatoes to Naples, sometime in the late 16th century, when the Kingdom of Naples was thoroughly under Spanish hegemony. Tomatoes arrived at first merely as botanical specimens. But precisely there, in the territory around Naples, I would happily argue, tomatoes were to reach their fullest potential. Indeed, the first European recipes to include tomatoes were published in that city in 1692, a full 200 years after the voyage of Columbus, in a cooking manual called Lo scalco alla moderno (“the modern steward”). And again it’s not surprising that the author of the manual, Antonio Latini, called his recipe “Tomato Sauce, Spanish Style.” Here is Latini’s recipe:
Take half a dozen tomatoes that are ripe, and put them to roast in the embers, and when they are scorched, remove the skin diligently, and mince them finely with a knife. Add onions, minced finely, to discretion; hot chili peppers, also minced finely; and thyme in a small amount. After mixing everything together, adjust it with a little salt, oil, and vinegar. It is a very tasty sauce, both for boiled dishes or anything else.
Indeed it was then, and is to this day. The sauce that Lina Robustelli served us on that sunny October day was a variant on Latini’s Spanish-style sauce, made with garlic instead of onions and chilis, basil instead of thyme, but otherwise very similar. And still very tasty.
A Very Tasty Tomato Sauce
(Sugo di Pomodoro Molto Gustoso)
You can’t make a tasty sauce without tasty tomatoes and that’s sometimes a problem. When I make this in North America, I try to combine thick, dense-fleshed plum tomatoes with more robustly flavored heirloom varieties to get that sweet-acid balance I’m looking for. To make about 4 cups of sauce, you’ll need:
3 to 4 pounds very ripe tomatoes
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 plump garlic cloves, smashed and chopped
A pinch of sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A handful of fresh basil leaves, torn or slivered
Peel the tomatoes before cooking them by dipping each one in a pan of rapidly boiling water for 12 to 15 seconds, then transferring immediately to a colander. The peels will easily slip off as soon as the tomatoes are cool enough to handle. Core the tomatoes and cut away any bruises or bad spots. Roughly chop the tomatoes, saving the juice.
Combine the olive oil and garlic in a heavy-duty saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the garlic is melting. Do not let the garlic brown—this is important! Add the chopped tomatoes, along with salt and pepper to your taste. Continue to cook, stirring, over low heat but whem the tomatoes have yielded some juice, raise the heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until much of the juice has evaporated and the tomatoes are very soft—20 to 30 minutes.
Remove the sauce from the heat and taste thoughtfully. Add more salt or pepper if you wish and if the flavor is too acid, add just a pinch of sugar, stirring it in. Using an immersion blender, puree the sauce right in the saucepan, or transfer to a food processor or a hand-turned vegetable mill. If the sauce is too liquid, just simmer it until you reach the thickness you’re looking for.
Another Even Tastier Tomato Sauce
(Un sugo di pomodoro ancora più gustoso)
Lina Robustelli doesn’t worry about finding tasty tomatoes because she knows that what she pulls from a can of Gustarosso or from a bottle that she and her husband put up back in September are going to be mighty fine. The major difference is simply substituting a 28-ounce can of Gustarosso tomatoes for the 3 to 4 pounds of fresh raw fruit in the recipe above. Drain the tomatoes before adding them to the pan, but don’t discard the juice—you may need to add it to the sauce if it’s too thick. In any case it will make a lovely addition to a future vegetable soup or meaty ragù (freeze it, if you have to keep it more than a few days).
Add a couple of chopped yellow onions and a chopped carrot with the garlic and cook till soft before stirring in the tomatoes.
For a spicier sauce, add a few hot chili peppers, fresh or dried, with the tomatoes. (Little dried red Calabrese peppers are delightful.)
For different flavors, try different herbs: fresh thyme, parsley, rosemary; dried bay leaf and/or oregano.
For a meatier sauce, crumble a couple of Italian-style pork sausages into the olive oil and brown the sausage before adding anything else.
To serve: Boil up about a pound (500 grams) of long, thin pasta (spaghetti, linguine, bucatini, ecc.) in abundant salty water, drain and turn into a heated bowl, add the hot pasta sauce, reserving a little to put on top. Turn the pasta in the sauce to coat it, then top with the reserved bit, plus a good handful of freshly grated parmigiano reggiano or pecorino toscano, and the fresh basil. For a Southern Italian touch, instead of grated cheese, top the pasta with brtead crumbs fried crisp in a little olive oil and mixed with finely chopped fried or toasted almonds.
You can find genuine San Marzano tomatoes in well-stocked food shops. Just be sure they are marked with the distinctive denomination of protected origin, DOP San Marzano del’Agro Sarnese Nocerino. Gustarosso brand San Marzanos may be ordered on-line from an excellent website, https://www.gustiamo.com.
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