When Broadsheet road-tested Italian tinned tomato brands back in August, a few readers spoke up passionately in defence of local tinned tomatoes. They’d never buy an imported product when an Australian one was available, they said.
And while many Aussie chefs prioritise supporting local growers and artisans – highlighting everything from veggies to wines to ceramics in their restaurants – when it comes to tinned tomatoes, most insist on buying Italian.
“The quality of the [Italian] tomatoes, in combination with the way they’re processed, is what makes the difference,” says Andrea Papadakis, head chef at respected Melbourne restaurants Tipo 00 and Osteria Ilaria. “We use a brand called Strianese, which uses premium-quality tomatoes from San Marzano. The fertile soil and temperate climate makes them unique.”
“I prefer San Marzano [to the Australian ones] because of the special heirloom variety that they are, grown in volcanic soil,” she says. “[The quality] is evident as soon as you open the can. The fruit itself is plump in texture, sweet, holds hardly any water and is balanced in acidity. It has lower acid compared to the Roma [tomatoes], for example. The liquid is sweet, dense and well-balanced.”
In our original Italian tomato story, Will Cowper of Brisbane’s Otto gave five out of five to Solania Pomodoro San Marzano DOP whole peeled tomatoes. He praised their texture, vibrant colour and flavour. “That’s why they’re the go-to. You open a tin and you know you’re going to get a consistent product – soft flesh and a sweet tomato.”
The San Marzano is a variety of plum tomato that originated in a small town of the same name near Naples, not far from Mount Vesuvius, where the volcanic soil creates a fertile terroir. San Marzanos have dense flesh and fewer seeds, and – thanks to the soil and long Italian summer days – a rich flavour. The acidity or bitterness that can pervade tomatoes in other parts of the world, including Australia, isn’t an issue.
Doctor Brett Summerell, chief botanist at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, says volcanic soil is full of nutrients and often ideal for growing good-quality tomatoes. He sees no reason why the same quality of flavour and texture can’t be reproduced in Australia, but says the real hurdle is the viability and return on investment for producers.
“One of the problems is whether it’s going to be economically viable for someone to invest that amount of time into producing these tomatoes in a particular region [in Australia]. That’s probably where the tricky part of it will be,” he says. “It depends on whether or not our tomato industry is developed enough to do that, when they can perhaps grow other varieties more suited and get a high return for them.”
In Australia, most commercially grown tomatoes are hybrid varieties created to withstand local conditions (such as climate, pests and soil) and commercial farming. They also need to be able to travel well, because (unlike in Italy) processing plants and markets tend to be separated by vast distances. As a result, flavour and texture are sometimes sacrificed.
Another factor chefs consider when choosing produce is Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (Protected Designation of Origin), or DOP, a certification that ensures products are grown and packaged where they say they are – and produced to the highest standards using traditional methods. It guarantees San Marzano tomatoes come from the south of Italy; balsamic vinegar of Modena comes from Modena; Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from select regions in the north of Italy; and so on.
“In those areas where they’ve grown them for a long period of time, there’s a lot of innate knowledge and expertise built up over generations, and sometimes that’s hard to replicate elsewhere,” Dr Summerell says.
While the chefs we spoke to prefer the quality of the Italian tinned tomatoes (Papadakis using them in his Napoli sugo and Greentree uses them in Paradiso’s celebrated lasagnetta), both still use local tomatoes wherever possible.
“Aussie canned tomatoes are great for slow-cooking meats,” Greentree says. “Anywhere where acid and water content won’t place such a bearing on the final dish. The same as using a cooking wine, for example.”
For Papadakis, the end of the local tomato season is the ideal time to support Victorian farmers. “We get a large amount of fresh [Australian-grown] San Marzano tomatoes from local farmers, preserve them and use them instead of tinned tomatoes.” (These aren’t DOP San Marzanos, obviously, so the flavour is different, but the seed variety is the same.)
And who knows, maybe one day local canned tomatoes will rival the Italian product that’s so esteemed today.
“It comes down to whether someone’s willing to put all the effort into growing it – in the right soil conditions, in the right location – in order to produce them in a way that matches [the San Marzano],” Dr Summerell says. “There’s probably no technical reason why it couldn’t be done, it’s just a matter of whether somebody really wants to put that effort into doing it.”