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Mutti - tomatoes not Angela Merkel

"Mutti is the tomato you buy when you want to impress your mates."

Matt Shea - Broadsheet

The ad shown here from the back of the Coles Magazine, which I guess is a prime position, (and also in Woolworths Fresh Magazine but not on the back) is my instigator today. I have been thinking about doing Mutti for a while, so seeing this ad gave me the prod to get on to it.

I have to say, I don't quite understand the ad - is it because she looks as if she is about to drink them. like wine? Because they are as good as wine? Is it a pun on the German word mutti? Maybe I'm just stupid, and besides it doesn't matter anyway. It's strikingly red and I looked at it, so I guess it did its job.

The reference to Angela Merkel as you probably know is because she is affectionately known as Mutti - which means mum or mummy in German, so nothing to do with Mutti tomatoes, although there is a somewhat distant connection as we shall see.

There are two reasons why I have been thinking of doing a blog on Mutti the tinned tomato brand. The first reason is that I think - although I am probably wrong - that it is a relatively recent brand on the supermarket shelves. I have seen various promotions - Coles once donated some cents of the price of every can sold to one of their charities I seem to remember. Which is a concept worth talking about some time too. Certainly I have only relatively recently been aware of the brand.

The second reason is that on at least a couple of occasions when I have been perusing the tinned tomatoes, neighbouring buyers have told me to buy Mutti because they are so much better. So I now actually have one can of tinned cherry tomatoes in my pantry. Normally, I confess, I am stingy and buy the cheapest - which tends to be the supermarket home brand - all Italian tomatoes by the way. When I am shopping I really try to buy Australian as much as I can, but yes, tinned tomatoes are one of the products I buy that is imported. There are a few more, but perhaps this one is harder to justify. At least superficially so, because yes it's been the cost for me, but now I find there are perhaps taste reasons as well.

So while we are on that particular topic let me direct you to one of the two or three articles I read on why we do this - the most comprehensive being from the Sydney Morning Herald's Melissa Fyfe and Royce Millar - Canned: why local tomatoes cop a pasting. Fundamentally it comes down to two things - climate and price. Apparently tomatoes for canning are grown in just two regions in Victoria and NSW and therefore if both are hit by drought or flood, or some other climactic disaster, then there is no supply. Which is no good for supermarkets who require reliability. Then there is the fact that the Australian SPC brand costs more than the most expensive Italian brand - which I think is Mutti. Various taste tests that I checked out all said the Italian ones were better, although there was disagreement about which.

"Australians may say they like to buy local, but their wallets speak louder ...

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." Tristan Lutze & Chynna Santos - Broadsheet

I am coming to Mutti - slowly - but here's the next little controversy. The San Marzano tomato shown above. As you can see they are a plum tomato, but a bit thinner and longer than the Roma that we all know, and which is found in cans of tomatoes. The San Marzano is the crème de la crème of the tinned tomato, less seeds, better tasting and the real thing can set you back a lot of money - well much more than ordinary roma tomatoes. The real thing is grown in a very small area around Vesuvius where the soil is rich and volcanic. Terroir - which has given it a DOP status - like Parmesan. However, you can grow the San Marzano tomato anywhere - even here in Australia, and also anywhere in Italy. Which is Ok as long as the tomatoes in the tin are labelled as DOP when they aren't. Mutti has some and I note that they are labelled as genuine. But you can't buy them in the supermarkets - possibly because of the price. I found some at Harris Farms - $4.29 for a 400g can, which is rather more than a can of Woolworths or Coles Home brand at 80c or Mutti whole peeled tomatoes at $1.70. I'm not sure whether you can get the seeds or plants here to grow in your own garden.

Are they better? Well why not follow this advice from Martha Stewart, substituting Australian, or other Italian for 'American':

"If you're curious about authentic San Marzano tomatoes, we suggest you track down a can and use it in a favorite recipe. Then try making that same recipe using a can of Italian San Marzano tomatoes grown outside of the DOP region, then test the same recipe using a can of American San Marzano tomatoes. Compare the final results from each type of tomato and determine which you actually prefer."

Then go further and test it against any other can of tomatoes, Italian, Australian, whatever, and whatever brand. There are, in fact, even more 'exclusive' brands than Mutti out there, but Mutti is perhaps the most available to the commoner. The other ones are found in gourmet stores or specialist importers aimed at the restaurant trade. One taste test I found was on Broadsheet. The tester was Will Cowper an Italian chef, who uses the unavailable to we ordinary mortals, Solania San Marzano brand, for his cooking. His results were interesting though - Mutti was best of the rest at 4/5 against his 5/5 for his Solania ones. Then Aldi equalled Annalisa at 3/5, Coles at 2.5/5 and Woolworths at the bottom with 1/5. He really didn't like them. Which rather ridiculously pleased me, not being a Woolworths fan. But if you are penny pinching, then it looks like a trip to Aldi is on the cards. Otherwise for flavour - Mutti, and for economy Coles, so maybe I should test this out and get one each of Aldi, Mutti and Coles.

"The Muttis were larger than most of the other tomatoes, had softer flesh and barely any seeds." Will Cowper - chef - Broadsheet

So who is Mutti?

Mutti was founded way back in 1899 by two brothers, Callisto and Marcellino Mutti. I suspect these must be the two lions who grace their logo, and which gives it the alternative name of the two lions brand. Although the two lions logo was not introduced until 1911.

The two brothers were the nephews of one Giovanni Mutti, a tomato farmer from near Parma, who invented crop rotation (well not quite true, but perhaps for that part of Italy). In 1899 his nephews founded Fratelli Mutti which shifted from pure farming to manufacture, albeit in an artisanal way. I suspect that Marcellino - shown here - was the prime mover and shaker as Callisto is not mentioned much more. The Mutti family came from Piazza di Basilicanova - a village in the district of Parma. Initially they were just preserving tomatoes in traditional Italian style, then Marcellino's son, Ugo, invented a sous-vide way of creating a tomato extract which was a forerunner of tomato concentrate.

Between the wars, Italy was in a severe state of depression, but the Mutti family, being canny businessmen, were able to buy up failing businesses, and keep the industry going which earned them the respect of the community.

Their next innovation - still with Ugo, in 1951 was the tube of tomato concentrate. The screw top was even used as a thimble. Nobody had thought to put tomato concentrate in tubes before then - tubes were for toothpaste. It was a very neat idea, although, like toothpaste rather difficult to get out the last little bit. However, the tube of tomato paste seems to have disappeared from the shelves except in the more 'exclusive' Leggos Providore brand? Why is that? Now you have to buy largish jars, or little yoghurt pot things. The large jars have a tendency to go off after a while unless you cover them with oil and store them in the fridge, and even then you sometimes fail. You have to use all of the little yoghurt pot type because once you take off the foil lid you have no lid. The stuff in the tube will not go off. I notice you can now buy it in sachets - at more than double the cost of the stuff in a jar, or a squeezy bottle like ketchup - very difficult to get out the last of that. So not really progress in the area of tomato paste packaging. Mutti, by the way, still do the tube, but it doesn't seem to be available here. Woolworths used to have it but it is currently out of stock. And, of course, it costs more.

Back to Mutti, which is still in the family and now in the hands of the great grandson of Marcellino. In 1971 came polpa - very finely crushed tomatoes - I suppose a very fine passata and it seems that this is one of its major sellers. Initially it was in cans, but in 1986, with great fanfare they turned to glass bottles. No more I think. The ad which was for polpa showed lots of cans.

They continue to innovate and improve. In the 1990s they became the first to be certified Fruit Check, as having integrated pest management and GMO free fruit. In 2000 they launched the Pomidorino d'Oro award which is given to the three supplying farmers with the best quality fruit. In 2007 they started to produce ready made sauces and a pesto from green tomatoes. In 2010 they collaborated with the WWF on various sustainability issues. In 2013 they moved into France and Campania.

All is going well, and continues to do so, but in 2017 there was a major scandal, in which Mutti and Centro - the other large Italian canned tomato producer, were implicated in a court case about slave labour in the tomato fields.

It seems that in some parts of the country - particularly the south, illegal - legal too - immigrants, mostly from Africa, are employed in the tomato fields to pick fruit under inhuman conditions. The case came up because one of these workers died. They often work 12 hours a day in very, very hot conditions, have terrible accommodation, hardly any pay, or pay that is earmarked for accommodation and living costs, with no access to medical assistance. The worker who died had collapsed but was not allowed medical attention. In the end the two companies were let off I think because they were not directly responsible. Neither were the farmers, who contract out the labour to ruthless contract masters. Mafia? As with all of this kind of thing, where does the buck stop you have to ask? Who knew what? And this is the very, very remote connection to Angela Merkel by the way - just because she let all those refugees in. Not a very close connection at all I know, other than that politics and ethics weaves its way into everything does it not? As I have now said a few time, politics, ethics, wellness, environment - every issue you can think of - it's all there on the supermarket shelves. Which makes them such fascinating places.

Italy, by the way, seems to be by far and away - around 75% - the largest exporter of tomato products in the world. It is however only the third largest producer after America and China, who, one assumes do it for their own huge markets. Italy is tomatoes. Mutti is tomatoes - they don't do anything else, which just shows you can make a fortune with focus. Well done Christopher Columbus.

And I've just thought, that in the light of that tomato picking scandal the tag line on the initiating ad "Your love for Mutti may be misunderstood", is perhaps not well chosen.


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