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Cans of discoveries - even some worms

"the cook's comfort blanket" Joanna Blythman - The Guardian

I started out thinking that I might not have enough for a whole post, but, probably as usual, I actually found myself straying into all sorts of unthought of areas.

My initial starting point was a question I have had floating around in my head every time I go to the supermarket to buy a tin or two of tomatoes. The question being, why are whole peeled tomatoes disappearing, in favour of diced and crushed, and, indeed, why are large tins disappearing? And I still have no answer to this, because if there is one thing I have learnt - well I knew it already really - whole peeled tomatoes are best, so why they are disappearing from the shelves is not clear to me at all.

I understand why there is a general shortage of canned tomatoes - well I think I do. It's a combination of everyone cooking spaghetti bolognaise at home, and probably supply problems from Italy because of COVID. But honestly I do not understand why the whole tomatoes and the large tins - especially the large tins - really are disappearing. Is it really just because the supermarkets are responding to lazy people who don't want to chop up the whole ones? It's not that difficult to do is it? You can even just chop at them when they are in the pan. Or - here's one useful tip:

"You can easily chop up whole tinned tomatoes without making any inconvenient mess by snipping away at them with kitchen scissors while they are still inside in the opened can." Joanna Blythman - The Guardian

So if anyone has the answer to my question I would love to hear it. I just found that Wikipedia confirms that diced tomatoes are indeed the current most bought form. Supply and demand I suppose, although I don't think that's quite right, because in one shopping excursion I noticed that the whole tomatoes had almost disappeared whilst there were heaps of diced ones.

Here are a few facts and tips that you might not know about tinned tomatoes:

  • Diced tomatoes often have calcium chloride added to them so that they remain firmly in their chunks - so if you want them to melt into a purée they are not for you.

  • "All canned tomatoes are technically cooked. After being picked and sorted and once the skins are removed, tomatoes are canned and sealed. Then they’re sterilized in a hot bath, which also cooks them." Jessica Gavin: Culinary Scientist

  • All tinned tomatoes benefit from the addition of a touch of sugar

  • Roma tomatoes are the preferred variety because they have more flesh and less seeds

  • San Marzano tomatoes are a specific type of tomato which is said to be the crème de la crème as far as tinned tomatoes go. However unless they are certified as DOP from Italy, then they are probably not genuine. Apparently imposters are rife. And they cost more.

  • Broadsheet did a road-test of various brands of whole peeled tomatoes by asking a chef to try all the types and various brands. Obviously he went for the genuine San Marzano with Mutti a close second. Woolworths came last even though it's very popular and I can vouch for that - there were none on the shelves when I went there the other day. Coles and Aldi did better with Aldi getting the same mark as Annalisa - just above Coles.

  • Jessica Gavin: Culinary Scientist gave a pretty clear rundown of the different kinds of tinned tomatoes. I don't think we get stewed ones here.

Although virtually all of the articles I read about the different kinds seemed to think they were all appropriate for various different tasks, I personally think that the crushed ones are just watery. That's been my experience anyway. Maybe I bought the wrong brand - it would have been somebody's home brand I guess. And I now I know why I didn't like the diced ones either - they were much firmer and didn't break down. So for me it's definitely the whole ones. I'm told that the Mutti cherry tomatoes are a thing but don't cook them too long or they will turn to mush. I bought a tin by mistake one day, so I should try them out.

But here is the last thing that you probably didn't know about tinned tomatoes - lots of brands - including some Mutti brands - use tomatoes picked using slave labour which is organised and controlled by the Mafia. Mutti claims that they take every care to avoid such scenarios, but it is not in their power to avoid it. False news you might say - apparently not. There is currently a case being brought in the Italian courts and there are numerous articles from reliable and authoritative sources out there, with international human rights bodies involved as well. This mostly occurs in Southern Italy and Sicily where the Mafia is king, and involves illegal, mostly African immigrants. Stupidly long hours, very tiny wages, shocking living conditions and always the threat of turning them in to the authorities. I really don't know how you can avoid this problem. Buy Australian? There are even rumours here of the ill treatment of agricultural workers. So who knows.


In the course of my 'research' I came across another one of those family business stories that I might just highlight here. Sandhurst Fine Foods Australia. To tell the truth I'm not entirely sure what exactly they do - well sort of. They are primarily a food distributor I think, both of their own brands and other Australian brands, overseas and locally. Their mission statement is:

"To be internationally recognised as the premium Australian exporter of quality foods and quality service."

It's a family firm - the Italian Lubrano family - mother and father Geraldine and Vince and sons Mimmo and Ray. Geraldine and Vince are now officially retired but still have a very active interest. Here they all are - all somewhat tubby in an Italian sort of way I have to say. Geraldine comes from an Italian farming family and Vince from a fishing family, so they have always been closely connected to the production of food. They both came here as teenagers, - he jumped ship to avoid the draft in Italy. They fell in love - she says it was love at first sight for her. Now do you believe in love at first sight? They had no money but somehow acquired a small grocery store from where they sold groceries and wine. This was eventually sold and another store bought - by Geraldine this time with money borrowed from the bank, for they still had none of their own. Vince was working elsewhere at the time. This shop became a huge success, largely because of Geraldine's sandwiches and her initiative in preparing readymade Italian meals for the inhabitants of the nearby apartments.

This shop too was sold - at a substantial profit - and Sandhurst Foods was bought - back in 1988. The aim was "to bring the tradition of preserving foods in Italy to Australia" which is why you can still find their preserved products on your supermarket shelves. I could go on, with expansion into the big supermarkets and then into food services and export, but I won't. If you want to know a little more there is an extensive article on Family Business Australia. Mimmo gave these two insights to some of their business strategies:

"we make our money buying the right product under the right terms and we decided to stick to that."

“One of our principles is to not let one product, supplier or customer be more than five per cent of our business. Diversification is hard but it's necessary in order to stay healthy and to ensure our value.”

Today the business is run by the two sons. The latest I saw was that they are, like many businesses, having problems today because of COVID, but they do seem to be a remarkably entrepreneurial bunch - mum especially it seems to me and reading between the lines. Yet another example of how even people from very humble origins can do big things.

Back to the tinned tomatoes. Two things. Don't eat them uncooked. They don't taste good. They won't make a good pasta con salsa fresca. However, you can oven-roast them

"Slow-roasting whole peeled tomatoes brings out a ton of flavor. Here's how you do it: Drain two 28-oz. cans whole peeled tomatoes. Gently crush and transfer to a rimmed baking sheet where they’ll fit snugly. Season with salt, drizzle with ¼ cup olive oil, and roast at 250°F, tossing twice, 2–2½ hours. Coarsely chop, then mix with cooked grains and Parm, fold into scrambled eggs, or toss with pasta." Bon Appétit

I'm just hoping the whole peeled tomatoes don't disappear altogether.

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