I never thought much about canned tomatoes. I love ‘putting up’ tomatoes from my garden but I don’t ponder too deeply about the commercial kind. That is, until I was invited last September to the Mutti factory outside of Parma. As many of you might recall, I spent seven months living in Italy last year serving as President of the U.S. Pavilion at EXPO Milano 2015. While the EXPO itself was thrilling and educational, I was most deeply impressed by the Italians that I met and had the privilege to work with. Many Italian food companies and wineries are family owned and operated. Their pride is not only in the product but in protecting the family name and their devotion to the legacy of being the generational custodians of their land and quality of their product.
As any aficionado of Italian food can tell you, the brilliance of the cuisine has as much to do with the beauty of the product as it does with the skill of the chef. In Italy the cuisine is highly seasonal. They eat raw tomatoes in the summer and fall and the balance of the year they rely on canned tomatoes. Thus, as you can imagine, Italians take their canned tomatoes seriously. The number one selling brand of canned tomato in Italy and France today is Mutti. After visiting the factory, I now know why. I was invited by Juan Pablo Carnevale, Mutti’s export manager to visit the factory during harvest and boy, I will never take a canned tomato for granted again.
We first had lunch at a marvelous restaurant Mulino di Casa Sforza in Basilicanova (outside of Parma). We shared a heavenly pasta and drank a local and most delicious Lambrusco. It was over this lunch that Juan Pablo set the historical background for my tour. Did I realize that Napoleon’s wife brought the tomato to northern Italy? No. When Napoleon was captured in 1814 and exiled to Elba, he negotiated for his wife Marie Louise, the Hapsburg daughter of Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, to exile to the Duchy of Parma. She was a benevolent and a much loved Duchess. Her French court brought sophistication to Parma. The summer palace patterned itself after Versailles. The theater in Parma rivaled any in the world. (The ground floor was capable of being sealed off and filled with water for staging maritime battles!). From a culinary point of view, Marie Louise did a reverse of Caterina de Medici and introduced the Italians to a much loved French ornamental fruit, the tomato. The environs of Parma proved fertile soil to produce luscious tomatoes. In the latter part of the 19th century the Italian universities and their superior scientific programs invented revolutionary preserving technologies which were applied to the popular products of Parma (ham, cheese, tomatoes). With the full support of the banking and commercial community the canned tomato industry was born.
Mutti was one of the first companies to can tomatoes. The reason for their success today is that each generation constantly upgraded quality controls and best practices in preserving. Today I saw the latest technologies applied. Their assembly lines rigorously test each incoming truck for disease and proper acidity levels. The production line culls green and unripe tomatoes lest bitterness enter the flavor profile. The harvest must be done quickly and efficiently to capture the freshness and ripeness of the fruit. A high tech scanner measures each processed batch for acidity and sweetness levels to maintain consistent flavor profiles. The blind tastes test bore out the superiority of the product. A sweet ending to a fascinating tour.
On leaving the production ground one is struck by a 15-foot standing toothpaste tube in the garden. Actually it is a blown up Mutti tomato paste tube. The Mutti heir after WW II innovated that packaging. He marveled at toothpaste tubes and realized they did not allow oxygen into the product. One could open the tube and use over a longer period of time without oxidizing and ruining the paste. What a great innovation! But he also realized that Italian women were slow to change their habits, especially with such an essential ingredient in making tomato sauce. So, he cleverly observed that in post war Europe most families were too poor to buy ready made clothing. Most women sewed. The cap of the tube was very ‘thimble’ like. And so, he engineered the cap to have two functions. When the paste was finished, the cap served as a thimble! At least the women would buy one tube just for that and give his product a try. One try and today it is the number one selling product.
Quality, innovation and passion, all in canned tomatoes. I wish we had Mutti here.