Would you spend £5 on a tin of tomatoes? Maybe our panel can convince you it’s worth the expense if you want a great tomato sauce…
Summer eating is a distant memory, squinted at from the monochrome depths of January. To introduce warmth and colour into our cold-season cooking, we reach for preserved vegetables and fruit, some of which are even an improvement. Fresh tomatoes are often of questionable quality in the UK, yet tinned tomatoes are reliable – a pantry staple. They are the key ingredient in many Italian dishes, to add to a chilli con carne, for use in certain curries but, most importantly, the fundamental component of a basic pasta sauce.
Too often people buy the cheapest: the bargain, no-brand flayed tomato in watery juice with a flavour more reminiscent of its metallic packaging than sunny Italy. You want it tangy, not tinny.
All tinned tomatoes are not equal. In an effort to find the best, I got together with TV chef Joe Hurd and Dino Joannides, author of the cookbook, Semplice. Like me, they both have an Italian background and a passion for the very best Italian ingredients. I thought I bordered on the obsessional with my pursuit of the perfect tinned tomatoes until I met Joe. He has been “curating” tinned tomatoes for 25 years, building up a collection of 78 different kinds at his home, many sourced from obscure regions of Italy.
In our quest for perfection, Joe sacrificed four tins from his precious collection. Dino chaperoned two tinned and two jarred tomatoes. I brought the rest, a mix of tinned tomatoes from online delicatessens and supermarkets. Napolina, Waitrose own brand, Heinz, Mr Organic and La Tarantella, all of which can be found in high-street grocers, didn’t score badly but paled in taste beside brands imported from Italy. In general, the standard was higher than we expected, although Ocado’s unpleasant own-brand offering was dubbed “a crime against humanity” by Joe. Joe’s years of tomato tasting had taught him “not to be deceived by trophies, baubles and badges that make them look impressive, when they don’t actually taste so good”. He was inspired. “I’m going to start eating my collection and experimenting,” he proclaimed.
We compared like with like, an initial tasting of 21 different types of raw tomato, narrowing it down to the top eight, which I cooked down with olive oil, salt, fresh basil and garlic. Finally, we tried each sauce with a forkful of spaghetti.
The clear winner was I Sapori Di Corbara Sua Eccellenza. Coming in at just under £5 for 520g, they are expensive but the difference of taste between these jarred tomatoes and the cheapest supermarket brands was night and day in terms of flavour, sweetness, acidity, colour, texture. It would be almost impossible to make a bad tomato sauce with these. Best of the ordinary supermarket brands was Cirio, beating the likes of Napolina and Waitrose own.
1 I Sapori di Corbara: Sua Eccellenza (520g): £4.95
A combination of San Marzano tomatoes in Corbarina juice. Dino gave these 9/10, and a bit of background: “It is a scarce product, they sell the harvest, and when it runs out, it runs out. Other producers seem to have inexhaustible quantities which is very suspicious.” Joe thought them “really really incredible”. Available at Andreas Veg, (customers can email him firstname.lastname@example.org for deliveries until his online shop goes live) or i Sapori. Score: 9.5/10
2 I Sapori di Corbara: I Pomodorino di Corbara (520g): £4.95
These are made from Corbarino tomatoes in water and a little salt. They taste like fresh tomatoes. Available from Andreas Veg (see above). Score: 8.5/10
3 Antonella (400g): £1.20
These got a good score from everybody, Joe proclaiming he “could eat the entire can raw”. Available from Natoora.co.uk. Score: 8/10
4 Agrigenius (400g tin): £2.15
These are San Marzano DOP, full of flavour. Available from the Food Market. Score: 7.5/10
5 Strianese (400g): £1.39
Joe brought these along and although he was disappointed that they were not as good as the price suggested, they performed well. Available at Wholefoods and Earth Natural Foods. Score: 7.5/10
6 Cosi Come Giallo (350g) in a glass jar: £5.99
Small, yellow dattarino tomatoes. “Very sweet,” noted Joe. “Really lovely,” said Dino, although he found the colour offputting. Available from Amazon. Score: 7/10
The best of the rest
Cirio (400g): 95p
“Not bad actually cooked,” observered Dino “but over-pasteurised”. These are sweet, with a rich colour and some acidity. Available in most supermarkets. Score: 3.5/10
Tarantella (400g): 85p
These have a nice, deep, red colour. Joe and Dino declared them “just above average”. Available from Morrisons. Score: 3/10
photos from Kerstin Rodgers blogs at Msmarmitelover.com