Foolish Love, and a Cold, Cold Summer

Sep 6, 2010

San Marzano Tomatoes

by Liz Rottger, Contra Costa Master Gardener.

Since I’ve always prided myself on raising my own homegrown tomatoes (even in Richmond), I was a little embarrassed a couple of weeks ago to have to buy several pounds from Monterey Market, the renowned vegetable market in Berkeley, because for the very first time, I don’t have a single ripe tomato in my garden. Not one! How could that be?
It would be easy to join everyone else in blaming the gloomy, overcast weather we’ve been having this entire summer in West County, with temperatures hovering in the low sixties as a cold wind blows in off the Bay, day after day. While it’s true that tomato plants are tropical vines that particularly need warm nights (above fifty-five degrees) to set blossoms, it would be less than honest of me to offer this as the reason why I don’t have any ripe tomatoes. The cool weather has certainly been a contributing factor to my ‘crop’ failure, but I’m forced to admit that the real cause was my infatuation with a package of seeds.

Last January I was rummaging through the vegetable seed racks at a local nursery when I came across a package of “authentic Italian seed” for the famous San Marzano ‘pomodoros’—golden apples. I was smitten. These are the wonderful plum tomatoes that grow in a valley near Naples at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. Legend says that the seeds were given to the King of Naples in the eighteenth century by the Kingdom of Peru. But that’s probably a marketing myth.

What is fact is that some chefs consider San Marzano to be the best sauce tomato in the world. They are indeed legendary! Canned San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy can cost as much as $6 for a 28 ounce can at gourmet grocery stores! Even the cost of its seeds was jaw-dropping, but that didn’t stop me from buying a packet.
To think that I could have these lovely tomatoes in my own back yard! I immediately dumped my old lovers -- the faithful Green Zebras, stalwart Stupice, exotic Black Odessa and even loyal Oregon Spring -- and started hanging out with San Marzano. Like most love affairs, the beginning was blissful, as San Marzano did lead me on. Great germination rates, transplanting to small pots went equally well, and hardening off and setting out in the garden all progressed beautifully. I was ecstatic. This was going to be a perfect match.
Then, nothing! They didn’t seem to grow much. I thought that maybe they just needed time to think over their new location -- to get used to things. I waited patiently. But in my heart, I already knew the score - there was a problem in paradise. Two months later, I have to admit bitterly, they didn’t love me or my garden. They kept waiting for the kisses of that warm Neapolitan sunshine that never arrived and just got more and more homesick. They’re not much bigger now than when I first put them in the ground.
Like all jilted lovers, I first reproached myself. How could I have been such a fool? I should have known better. Then came insight: they simply weren’t my climate type. Chastened with the knowledge that just because it’s a seed doesn’t mean that it will grow and flourish in my garden, I’ll return to my old faithfuls next year. I know they’ll take me back.