In Season: San Marzano tomatoes | culture: the word on cheese
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In Season: San Marzano tomatoes

The San Marzano tomato is the pride of Calabria, Italy. Often referred to by locals as “red gold” for its economic value, the fruit is revered all over the world for its rich, sweet-and-sour taste and ability to produce a perfectly balanced tomato sauce. Though its scent has long evoked Sunday dinners and holydays in its homeland, it wasn’t until 1996 that this ruby jewel received its PDO.

To be official, San Marzano tomatoes must be grown in volcanic soil at the base of Mount Vesuvius near Naples Red in the province of Salerno. The region boasts a typical Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and rainy winters. Attributes of the San Marzano tomato include a bright red color, very few seeds, and firm, juicy flesh with a thin skin (which makes for easy peeling).

So, how do North Americans get to enjoy this prodotti tipici? Consider growing them yourself—authentic San Marzano tomato seeds are available for purchase online and require little more than a hot, dry summer and rich, fertile land in which to grow. (Start plants indoors approximately two months before the last predicted frost.) While the soil you use will never perfectly replicate the volcanic soil of the Agro Sarnese-Nocerino area, you can add components like phosphorus, potassium, compost, and silica to help mimic conditions.

That said, growing your own tomatoes is not a luxury we can all experience, and most North American grocery stores don’t typically stock fresh San Marzano tomatoes. Luckily, the PDO tomatoes are readily available canned, but beware imitators. First, look for the PDO seal and the seal of the San Marzano Consortium; San Marzano tomato growers must pay a fee to the Consortium to receive this stamp of authenticity. Certified PDO tomatoes also come with an ID number that traces them back to one of 12 processing facilities in the Agro Sarnese-Nocerinoarea. Additionally, authentic San Marzano tomatoes are never sold crushed, diced, or pulped—they are only sold peeled and whole, in juice, with fresh basil, or as fillets.

Italians have mastered the combo of tomatoes and cheese, from pasta dishes to meat, bread, and—of course—the classic Caprese salad. Tomatoes can also play a part on a summer cheese board in the form of a sweet and spicy jam—find a recipe below. Match it with pecorino, Taleggio, or marinated fresh chèvre for a taste of the Calabrian countryside.

Tomato and Calabrian Chile Jam

Erin Harris
San Marzano tomatoes lend a deep, concentrated flavor to this sweet condiment, while Calabrian chiles bring a smoky heat. Use it to top grilled, bone-in pork chops, cheeseburgers, or grilled cheese sandwiches. Makes 3 cups


  • 1 28- ounce can San Marzano PDO tomatoes in juice
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons Calabrian chile paste
  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 fresh bay leaves


  • Empty tomatoes and can juices into a medium saucepot. Using your hands, crush tomatoes into a thick pulp. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine.
  • Bring mixture to a simmer and cook, stirring often, for approximately 1 hour, or until it has thickened enough to hold onto the back of a spoon. (If it’s too loose, continue stirring and simmering in 5-minute intervals until it reaches a jam-like consistency.) Jam will continue to thicken as it cools.
  • Remove bay leaves and allow jam to cool completely to room temperature before serving. This jam can be preserved in jars—refer to your trusted canning resource for instructions.

Erin Harris

Erin Harris is a classically trained chef who spent time living and working in Italy early in her career. After years of being an enthusiast of fine cheese, Erin studied and trained to become a Certified Cheese Professional through the ACS. Combining her passion for fine food and cheese, today Erin is a cheesemonger and a freelance recipe developer and consultant. In her free time, Erin can be found traveling in search of her next cultural adventure.

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