Food & Drink: Canny Cooking

In The Can Part 1: Tomatoes A century ago cans were hailed as the solution to preserving edibles. Now overtaken by the freezer and chill cabinets, they are the poor relations of the food world. But, cheap and cheerful, they still represent a meaningful part of our weekly shop, from baked beans to pet foods. And, in some cases, canned products can be as effective as fresh, if not more so. In the first of a two-part series Michael Bateman looks at the essential, canned tomato. Next week: canned luxuries

TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE of current Italian affairs. Cirio is (a) the designer tipped to step into Miuccia Prada's elegant shoes (b) a Sheffield Wednesday footballer suspended for flattening a British referee (c) Italy's leading brand of canned tomatoes.

The last, of course, but in Britain Cirio (pronounced like cheerio) is not a well-known brand. This is strange, since in Italy, birthplace of processing canned tomatoes, it is numero uno.

It is Italy's major food company, founded by Francesco Cirio, father of the canning industry in Turin in the 1860s. Expanding at a phenomenal rate the company built up a fleet of 2,000 railway wagons to transport goods across Europe, opening factories in every major country, except, that is, in the UK, which was already big in canning, if not in tomatoes.

Today Cirio is not only the biggest-selling canned tomato in Italy, it is also the most costly. Since Italians perceive it to be the best, they expect to pay more for it. That simply doesn't happen here. The majority of British consumers are looking to buy the cheapest, regardless of quality. That may explain why only a few of us are familiar with the Cirio brand.

In the days before supermarkets influenced our shopping habits, one of the great food adventures used to be trawling Italian family grocers to seek out such treasures as freshly-made pasta and the better brands of dried pasta, such de Cecco, packets of day-old buffalo mozzarella, nuggets of well-aged Parmesan, olive oil and seasoned olives, capers and anchovies stored in salt.

The prizes would inevitably include a few cans of the rather superior Cirio chickpeas (cece), lentils (lenticchie) and, above all, tomatoes canned in a rich tomato puree. Pure luxury. They cost a little more, but not a lot, and we're not talking caviare and foie gras here. So why do we Britons settle so easily for tomatoes of lesser quality?

Think of the times you've bought tinned tomatoes on special offer, opened the can only to find five specimens of diminishing stature, naked in their pool of tomato-coloured water. Okay, so they were cheap, but you needed two cans just to get the bulk of one good quality can. A false economy, since you'll have paid around 44p (for two cans) instead of, say, 32p (for one premium can).

How do you know what to expect when you buy a can of tomatoes? Even though the experiment would cost no more than a couple of pounds, it simply isn't practical for most of us to buy a selection of canned tomatoes from across the whole range and carry out a quality test at home.

In any case, how much better can a better can be? The answer is, like everything else in life, quite a lot - you get what you pay for. In a recent blind tasting, Tesco Premium came out in front, and it turned out that theirs are processed by Cirio

What is it that the Cirio tomatoes have that the other's haven't? In November, on a visit to Cirio's research laboratories outside Naples, I had the opportunity to find out. I was accompanied by Cirio's man in London, Peter Parmigiani, descended from the London Italian provisioners.

The visit was an opportunity to see the workings behind the vast improvements in processed tomatoes in recent years, not only in canned tomatoes, but in chopped tomatoes, tomato paste and passata (the sieved puree which needs almost nothing doing to it to transform it into an instant sauce for pasta).

Fifteen varieties of tomato are grown at the Ricerca labs, but not by horny-handed men of the soil. These are just a few sample plants grown under glass to satisfy the academic requirements of men in white coats. To understand what is going on it would be helpful to have a degree in chemistry, though a comparative tasting was enlightening.

The reassuring conclusion is that the better the tomato, the less needs to be done to it. The perfect, ripe tomato will have a natural balance of sweet and sour. In lesser products, a lack of character has to be adjusted by the addition of citric acid.

The food scientists illustrated the difference between cans in which tomatoes are packed in tomato "juice", and their own, which are canned in pureed tomato. Point taken. The widest variation was in cans of chopped tomatoes. Overripe and unripe tomatoes can be incorporated, with a shot of citric acid to give the illusion of balanced flavour. Read the label.

A tube of concentrated tomato paste, loosened with its own volume in water, proved to be more than just a booster for a sauce. Mixed with capers, chopped black olives, olive oil, a splash of balsamic vinegar and a torn basil leaf or two, it made a fine instant topping for tiny toasts for pre-drink appetisers.

But the product which most impressed me was their tomato passata, which they sell as Rustica. Twenty-five types of tomato, each with its own character, are crushed and bottled within 30 minutes of picking to ensure perfect freshness. In the Italian kitchen this is one of the most popular and versatile products. It was introduced in the UK and withdrawn when no- one bought it. Shame.

Why? No one knew what to do with passata at the time, they say. Where were you Delia, in our hour of need? As for their sensational canned pomodorini, cherry tomatoes, they don't even think of exporting them to the UK.

We'd never understand. These are comparatively expensive, a special, intensely-sweet tomato variety prized in Napolitan restaurants, where they hang in the kitchens drying on their branches. Only a few need to be added to a dish of baby clams, for example, to provide a dramatic sweet and sour touch. These tomatoes make the best sauces for pasta. (You can buy pomodorini in jars from specialist Italian food store, Carluccio's, in Covent Garden, London; tel 0171 240 1487 for their 130 UK stockists.)

Cirio have often wondered if trying to wake up the British market would be worth the effort. And now, taking the advice of Peter Parmigiani, they've decided it's time to have another go. This year we should be seeing more about them as they pop up in stores across the country.

To this end, they have established as a London beachhead, a Cirio Kitchen in Kensington. It is headed by Susanna Gelmetti who also runs Italian cookery weeks in Italy. Here they are offering half-day courses which include cookery lessons in 18th-century and 19th-century Napolitan cuisine, wine tasting, a five-course meal with wines and some agreeable propaganda about tomatoes.

The courses cost pounds 55 a time, but the first 30 Independent on Sunday readers who respond can take advantage of an exclusive offer of only pounds 30 per course (which will include a free goody bag of books and products worth pounds 25). Ring the Cirio Italian Kitchen on 0789 997 3464 for lists of available dates between now and March.

POLPETTINE IN SALSA DI POMODORO

MEATBALLS IN TOMATO SAUCE

This is Susanna Gelmetti's recipe for an everyday Italian family dish.

Serves 4

100g/312oz fresh ricotta cheese

100g/312oz Emmenthal, roughly chopped or grated

100g/312oz very lean minced pork

150g/5oz minced veal

1 egg

sunflower oil for frying

salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the tomato sauce:

1 x 400g/14oz can chopped tomatoes

60ml/4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

12 onion, finely chopped

fresh basil leaves, roughly torn

To make the tomato sauce, heat the olive oil in a pan and saute the chopped onion for about four minutes. When the onion becomes translucent, add the can of chopped tomatoes and cook for a further 20 minutes. Remove pan from the heat. Add the roughly torn basil leaves and season. Keep the sauce warm until the meatballs are ready to serve.

To make the meatballs combine, the cheeses, meats and the egg. Season the mixture with salt and freshly-ground black pepper and shape into cherry- size balls.

Heat the sunflower oil in a frying pan. When it is very hot, add the meatballs in batches, frying for about two to three minutes until crisp. Remove and drain on kitchen paper. Serve with the warm tomato sauce on the side.

INVOLTINI AL SUGO

STUFFED VEAL ESCALOPES IN TOMATO SAUCE

Rolled and stuffed, this dish features all the classic southern Italian ingredients. This is more tomato sauce than you will need for the escalopes - use about a quarter for the veal and the rest to dress a dish of pasta.

Serves 4

4 veal escalopes (veal cutlets), cut in half

salt

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

50g/2oz fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

8 celery leaves, chopped

about 20 pine nuts

about 20 sultanas

180ml/6fl oz extra virgin olive oil

1/2 onion, chopped

90ml/6 tablespoons white wine

For the tomato sauce:

60ml/4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 onion, finely chopped

2x 400g/14oz cans chopped tomatoes

fresh basil leaves, roughly torn

fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

2 fresh hot red chillies, finely chopped

To make the tomato sauce, heat the olive oil and saute the onions and chillies for about four minutes. When the onion becomes translucent, add the chopped tomatoes and cook for a further 20 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add the basil and parsley and season. Set aside.

Spread out the slices of veal on a flat surface. Sprinkle salt, garlic, parsley (saving half for garnish), celery leaves, pine nuts and sultanas on each slice of the meat. Roll up and secure each with a wooden toothpick.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and saute the onion. When translucent, place the veal rolls in the pan and cook for about five minutes, browning lightly on all sides. Add the wine and the tomato sauce. Cover and leave to cook for 10 minutes.

Check the seasoning before serving the veal rolls, covered with the sauce and garnished with the reserved parsley, accompanied by green beans.

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