Tomatoes, one of the joys of summer in most locales, thrive in Campania’s hot and sunny climate. Yet good tomatoes can be surprisingly hard to find in summer – the oval, longish, rather crisp varieties that are the region’s claim to fame are mostly used for cooking, and the best ones are canned or exported to richer parts of the world.
Somewhat improbably, winter is the best time to eat fresh tomatoes in Naples. As soon as the days get shorter and the nights get colder, small cherry tomatoes with a distinctly pointy end start to appear at every vegetable stall and restaurant throughout the city – this particular version of the fruit is known as pomodorino del piennolo del Vesuvio, or simply piennolo.
Bound together with hemp string in big bundles and suspended from hooks on the ceiling, they look a bit like a bunch of grapes or a pinecone (from which some say they take their name, one of multiple explanations). Thanks to their unusually thick skin and low water content, these special tomatoes stay fresh and last all winter – if they don’t get eaten up much earlier.
Piennolo tomatoes have a distinctive taste that keeps you coming back for more, and then more still: sweet, mineral and slightly bitter, dry but intense, a complex tomato for the advanced tomato lover. Eaten fresh, they wake you up with their bright acidity and surprising fruitiness; cooked until soft and melting, they lend every dish a deep umami flavor. They are used extensively in Naples’ tomato-heavy cooking: thrown on a pizza or cooked in a pasta sauce for extra flavor, used to season an otherwise mild fish stew or, maybe best of all, squeezed on a piece of toasted bread and seasoned with only a bit of Campanian olive oil and coarse sea salt.
“The most important thing is that they are ugly,” says Antonio Perillo, a farmer who grows piennolo tomatoes in Somma Vesuviana, a small town at the base of Mt. Vesuvius, about a 30-minute drive from Naples. “That shows you that they were grown the right way” and – more importantly – well aged. Piennolo vines are never irrigated and have to make do with minimal rainfall during Naples’ scorching summer months. To minimize moisture loss on the field, farmers like Antonio plant them in dense rows so the ground is shaded and covered – nonetheless, the fruit contains very little juice, making the flavor all the more concentrated.
Like most tomatoes, they are harvested in July and August. But instead of being sold straight away, they are first stored for a few months in wooden boxes in the cellar. As the months go by, they mature, lose even more moisture and develop their flavor and special mouth feel. Starting from November, they are tied up in characteristic bunches, hitting the market shortly before Christmas. High-quality piennolo tomatoes are in fact a popular Christmas gift in Naples.
The fruit contains very little juice, making the flavor all the more concentrated.
Although similar varieties are grown throughout the region, real-deal piennolo tomatoes only come from the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, where they thrive in the mineral rich volcanic soil with its special pH value, which, according to local farmers, is what gives them their distinct flavor. In 2009, they where awarded the DOP status of protected origin. In recent years they’ve become increasingly popular abroad, with lots of counterfeit tomatoes grown on lesser farmland popping up on the market.
If you want to make sure to get real piennolo tomatoes, buy only from trusted sources or, best of all, directly from farmers – and be prepared to pay. Everything from planting to tending, harvesting and bundling is done by hand, so good ones sell for around €17 per kilo, more than eight times the price of ordinary cherry tomatoes.
That’s why piennolo tomatoes used to be reserved for special occasions. “We only used to have them on Christmas Eve on pasta,” says Antonio. These days, Neapolitans are somewhat more liberal in their usage, but they still act more as a seasoning than a basic ingredient. They have to last all winter, after all.
Apart from buying piennolo tomatoes directly from farmers, you can also purchase them in Naples at L’orto va in città, an organic vegetable shop on Via Santa Chiara, and Il Tagliere, a great little salumeria in Vomero. At this time of year most high-quality outlets have sold all their piennolo stock, but it’s always worth trying Sapori & Dintorni, an excellent high-end supermarket in Chiaia.
Editor’s note: Our recurring feature, Building Blocks, focuses on foods and ingredients that are fundamental to the cuisines we write about.
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