Piennolo tomatoes have grown in and around Mount Vesuvio National Park for a very, very long time. So long in fact, that their DNA had the time to perfectly adapt to the dry, volcanic environment of the area. Piennolo developed thick skins as protection against the salty wind and the harsh sunlight. They also have seriously resilient root systems that don’t need any kind of irrigation.
Amazing right? It’s this combination of genetics and environment that makes the Piennolo tomato so spectacular. Those thick skins are full of minerals and nutrients, especially potassium, that create a flavor and mouthfeel unique to this heirloom tomato. Bite into a Piennolo and you’ll get an explosion of sweetness followed by the signature bitterness of Vesuvian soil.
Piennolo tomatoes got the DOP (protected designation of origin) status from the EU in 2009. This linked them inextricably to their territory. Real Piennolo tomatoes can only grow in the 18 municipalities in and around Mount Vesuvio National Park:
Our Piennolo producer Pasquale Imperato has his farm on the west side of the park, nestled between the volcano and the sea. Pasquale’s particular farming practices mean his Piennolos are especially unique. This tomato variety may have been around for a long time, but that doesn’t mean it can’t benefit from new agricultural techniques.
Like his ancestors, Pasquale uses green manure and crop rotation. But he also likes to try out new farming ideas. Back in 2003, Pasquale collaborated with the University of Portici for an experiment in biodynamic agriculture. He started applying mycorrizae, a microscopic fungus, to the root systems of his tomatoes.
This fungus is hugely beneficial both to the plants and to the humans that eat them. On one hand, it helps the roots absorb way more nutrients from the soil than they otherwise would. This eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers. On the other hand, it protects the plants from pests and disease. This means there’s no need for pesticides. The fungus even stops the roots from absorbing carcinogenic nitrates from the soil that would otherwise end up in the fruits.
Remember the thick skins from earlier? This is why Piennolo are the only tomatoes in the world that can be eaten semi fresh for almost a full year. Piennolo comes from the word “hanging” in Neapolitan dialect, and this is how these tomatoes are traditionally preserved: hanging in a bunch. Those thick skins protect the tomato berry while the dry, salty sea breeze circulating around them acts as a preservative.
Pasquale really takes Piennolo production to a whole new level with his combination of tradition and innovation. He helps preserve his regions’ gastronomic heritage, and improves it for future generations at the same time. Piennolo is one of only three tomato varieties that can go on a DOP Margherita Pizza, we need them around for years to come!