You say ‘tomato.’ I say ‘tomato.’
Concerning the Piennolo tomato, there’s a noted Bay Area restaurateur who shall go unnamed because, despite my present state of mild annoyance, he is a charming individual, smart and creative, who pays his bills, and has always been generous to me and my farm. But the dissonance- I wouldn’t call it a conflict- between our perspectives does make me think about the roles that marketing, advertising and “branding” play in our lives.
At its best, advertising is simply story telling. Granted, advertisements are stories told in the service of commerce, because a “happy ending” has the consumer buying into the plot line by purchasing the targeted product, but there’s no reason that an ad has to be full of lies. An effective promotional campaign can even be a vector of useful information. With the Piennolo tomato there is a compelling narrative for the salesman to recount that pushes plenty of happy buttons; traditional family values, bright flavor, simpler times, rustic charm, Grandma’s kitchen, country living etc…As it was promoted to me by the restaurateur in question the story goes something like this:
There is in Italy a delightful, open-pollinated, traditional variety of tomato known as the “Piennolo.” Not only are the Piennolo’s small, firm, fruits packed with flavor, the plant is indeterminate, meaning that the fruit set occurs over a long season, not all at once as the determinate tomatoes do. Modern tomato varieties that have been developed for mechanized agriculture are typically determinate so that the growers only need to run their mammoth harvest machines through a field once. To accommodate their production contracts large scale operations will plant sequential crops of determinate tomato crops that roll off, one after another, to accommodate the schedules of the canneries or the marketing commitments of the retail distributors. Machine harvesting is efficient, but there are costs, and sometimes flavor is the price the consumer pays for cheaper food.
The Piennolo tomato is not only indeterminate, it’s also quite sturdy, and it can yield a tasty harvest even long after other, more commercial, varieties have dropped dead from mildew. The Italian peasant farmers that first cultivated the Piennolo learned to pull their plants from the ground before the first frosts and hang them from the rafters of their cottages. As the green Piennolo plants withered, even the last green fruits on the vine would slowly turn red, so the cook of the house need only reach up over her head to pick some tomatoes, made all the more flavorful by being so luxuriously late. (Yeah, I wrote that; maybe it could be “his” head but I always heard that it was Grandma doing the cooking)
Ok; so that’s great. My friend, the restaurateur, was hoping I’d grow this tomato for him. It could be a great crop for everybody. He could have a lovely, distinctly Italian tomato to sex up his menu deep into the fall. The diners would get to appreciate true, traditional Italian cooking that they’d otherwise never be able to taste without going to Italy, and I’d get a new product that I could sell late into the fall and keep my cash flow pumping after the main tomato crop had been turned under. I was interested, so I hit the books and I did some online research.
Slightly different versions of The Tale of the Tasty Piennolo were not hard to find online. So I poked through my seed catalogues. Try as I might I could not find seed for Piennolo tomatoes. The closest I came was a tomato called the Principe Borghese, which looked the same in photos as the Piennolo. I bought some Principe Borghese seed and planted it.
Like the fabled Piennolo, the Principe Borghese was a strong plant, apparently resistant to just about every disease. The variety thrived under a dry-farm regimen, requiring no irrigation whatsoever to produce an indeterminate crop of small, firm, flavor-packed tomatoes deep into the late fall. And, like the Piennolo, Principe Borghese sported a curious nipple at the end of its small, cherry tomato sized, almost pear shaped fruit. I liked this tomato a lot, and was excited to show it to the restaurateur who had suggested the Piennolo to me.
My customer friend’s chef de cuisine liked the tomato too, but not enough to buy any. “If it’s not a Piennolo, it’s not going to work on our menu,” he said. I understand branding, so I understood where he was coming from. The restaurant wanted to promote the dishes that they’d planned for the Piennolo and they had a story they were excited to tell. Maybe the Principe Borghese looked and tasted like the Piennolo but when you’re putting your reputation on the line and you’ve got snarky critics to satisfy you wouldn’t want to go with an off brand tomato. So I harvested my crop and introduced the Principe Borghese to my customers, to people like you.
I kept looking for Piennolo seed, season after season. And I kept growing Principe Borghese. I kept offering them to my friend’s kitchen. And I kept on thinking that the Principe Borghese really was just the Piennolo tomato under a different name. I considered just calling my Principe tomatoes “Piennolos,” to get the sales, but as much of a hustler as I am, I didn’t want to be the guy in the parking lot selling fake Rolexes.
So then last fall, my friend, Annabelle, called. She had some Piennolo seed just arrived from the Boot. Did I want any?
Well, yes I did. Annabelle’s offer made me glad that I hadn’t “rebranded” some knock off cherry tom as a “Piennolo.” She’s always been the person I knew with the best, truest, varieties of traditional crops and I wouldn’t want her to catch me cheating.
So this year I planted the true Piennolo. And you know what? They are EXACTLY the same as the Principe Borghese, not “like” the Principe- they’re the same plant. Are we in some sort of Champagne scenario where you can’t call the tomato the “Piennolo” if it’s not grown on the slopes of Etna? Are they changing the Tomato’s name at Ellis Island? Or maybe the Piennolo’s different American name is due to some sort of witness protection program kind of situation? So now I’m kind of cross; I finally have a tomato- the same tomato- that I can produce for my customer, and Covid has destroyed this season’s restaurant business.
So now I only have you. You and your home cooking have kept our farm plugging along since 1998. And I’m grateful. We’ve tried to keep our place at your table by growing the tried and true, and we’ve tried to maintain your interest, and our own, by offering some new and different crops. So here’s an old crop with a new name, or at least a different name, and now you know why. No, I’m not going to pull up the plant so that you can hang them from your rafters. You may not have rafters, and anyway it would be a mess to ship. But we will have some late Piennolo tomatoes for you. There was a slight frost last night, so the end of the tomato season is near, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the last Piennolo tomatoes are still good to eat even after the election. Now make sure you vote, and please VOTE TO GET THIS OFF BRAND MUSSOLINI OUT OF THE WHITE HOUSE!
© 2020 Essay by Andy Griffin. Photos (except as noted) by Andy Griffin.
Top right photo of Piennolo (or are they Principe Borghese!?) by Shelley Kadota.