Pastene Company Ltd. will be 120 years old next year, and is gearing up for significant celebrations. The food company, which has been a household word on the east coast for many decades, is best associated with the indomitable spirit of Jerome Tosi, a curmudgeonly character of the highest order, who ran Pastene wisely and well. Tosi liked to affect the persona of a gruff grocer, but within was a gentle man, an intellectual with enormous musical ability in the classics and jazz. Jerome Tosi passed away in 1987.
The origins of the Pastene Company harken back to 1848, when Luigi Pastene, a newly-arrived Italian immigrant, had a simple pushcart with fruits and vegetables; by 1874, he had transformed his pushcart business into a major national and international food and fruit concern, catering to the well-to-do and especially to Italian immigrants. Pastene was then and is now a leader of jarred, canned and packaged Italian produce in the northeast, and the company today is run by Chris and Mark Tosi, sons to Jerome, who continue the multi-generational running of the firm.
With recent acclaim given to the “Mediterraean diet,” which advocates pasta, rice, olives, olive oil, vegetables, and of course, wine — products with which Pastene is eminently concerned, and with which they have been dealing for over a century– we asked Mark Tosi to speak with us about the diet and the latest food trends. But briefly some words about the Mediterraean diet.
Last winter, Harvard University’s School of Public Health convened an international conference (co-sponsored by Boston’s Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, “a non-profit organization dedicated to studying the promulgating diets that historically have been linked to good health and longevity”) and endorsed the Mediterranean diet, which fosters better health through the consumption of olive oil, wine, and grains. Harvard put the question thusly: “How is it that the diets of Crete and Southern Italy are healthier than counterparts or contemporary diets of Northern Europe and North America?”
The answer clearly is diet. Crete, Southern Italians and indeed Southern Europeans generally have low rates of heart disease, cancers, and other chronic problems, which besiege Northern Europe. Simply put, olives, olive oil, wheat, and wines dominate their diet. Reat meat doesn’t. Moreover, they consume high amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains, and they abjure generally foods from animal sources– milk and yogurt. And above all, wine is a daily beverage and is taken with meals. This is bad news from the neo-prohibitionists, many of whom, it seems, work for the USDA. Anti-wine types are a serious nuisance to wine lovers. Even some insurance companies and hospitals, according to the Harvard report, “automatically categorize patients as alcoholics if they report that they consume alcohol every day.” One wonders when the madness will end? We were, however, more than happy to learn that Marion Nestle, one of the co-chairs of the conference, went on record as saying that “there is
overwhelming evidence that wine reduces ornery disease and increases life expectancy.”
Significantly, fat is not a problem with the Mediterranean group because it is good fat from olive oil. In the U.S., the USDA recommends only 30 percent of calories from dietary fat; yet, in Greece, Spain, Italy, and many other Mediterranean nations, they consume more than 40 percent, principally in the form of olive oil, with no ill effects.
It’s easy to see what direction Pastene’s marketing will take in the upcoming years: namely, as Mark Tosi, says, the “same direction we’ve always taken from the last century,” for Pastene’s specializes in “virtually every recommended item in the Harvard study.”
Strange, says the university report, that Southern Europeans smoke more, but have fewer coronary problems and live longer. Credit their diet. Stranger still that Southern Europeans exercise far less than we do (their exercise is largely agricultural and manual labor), yet they live longer, and it’s due to diet. What a wonderful way to eat and stay healthy by moderate partaking of pasta, rice, beans, vegetables, olive oil, breads and grains, and wine. Ironic isn’t it that we’ve gone the entire route of “in” dining, concluding the nouvelle cuisine, only to discover that we should never have left the basics of sensible eating. Sophisticated diners of the 80s eating Southern Italian food in the 90s, which they once thought beneath them, is irony if the first order. Every mother’s lament can still be heard: “Eat your vegetables”
QRW: The Harvard report on the Mediterranean diet must have surely made you happy.
MT: Sure. They advocate everything we sell and have been selling for a very long time. Many of us have believed in the foods of the report for years –intuitively or otherwise. Ethnic foods — peasant food in the best sense of the word– is good and good for you. And the flavors are simply incredible.
QRW: It’s ironic that immigrant families like ours are fashionable. The smells and flavors you mention were part of our growing up, part of every immigrant mother’s kitchen.
MT: But you’ve got to remember that those smells were either forgotten or maybe never ever experienced. Newer generations came along and some of them were embarrassed about it. The old melting pot theory. And don’t forget some inferior– bad really– Italian restaurants ruined things by Americanizing Italian cooking. It’s all part of technology: it’s taken us in the wrong direction. Technology reconstituted and re-manufactured these foods past the point of recognition. They were unrecognizable as South European. They were sweet, syrupy, slippery!!! Pasta got demolished–and was served with a thick red sauce unworthy of the name. You know, all pasta needs is some garlic, salt, pepper, fresh basil, and tomatoes to make a good, light sauce.
QRW: Part of the Mediterranean diet has to do with the importance of wine as part of the daily diet. You no longer distribute wine, including some of the classiest wines anywhere: Gaja, Mondavi, Ca’Del Bosco, etc. Do you regret this?
MT: I love wine, but I don’t miss the business of selling it to the retail trade. I prefer focusing on the Pastene line of wines including Marsala, Sherry, Madeira, cooking wines for ethnic tastes and restaurant kitchens. The wines come from Lodi, California. But our focus is on food. Pastene will be 120 year olds next year. We’re the oldest family in the food business left. S.S Pierce was around for a long time, but they sold out.
QRW: What plans does Pastene have for its 120th celebration?
MT: We haven’t worked it all out yet, but we know we’ll release the family Cookbook. There’s some wonderful, old recipes that are still fabulous today. It shows the immigrant handling of Southern Italian food and sauces.
QRW: In what marketing direction does a grocery concern like Pastene go from here?
MT: There’s a lot to be done. We have to raise the consciousness of diet in this country, especially to the average consumer– not the diet-educated one, as they grasp what’s going on. But the average person has to be shown how great Southern Italian or Southern European/ Mediterranean food is. It’s the greatest tasting peasant food in the world… There’s an enormous number of people out there who don’t understand the use and beauty of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I had someone call on the 800 number telling me he bought our balsamic vinegar but didn’t know how to use it. He said he used it as a marinade for his steaks… It;s the kind of thing I’m talking about. These people eat lots of meat, hence lots of fats. They’re not totally aware of the dangers if they eat it regularly. The kind of fat they should have is the good fat that comes from olive oil which absorbs cholesterol, cleansing the arteries. They don’t know what a fine Italian olive oil and balsamic vinegar can do to a simple salad.
QRW: Whom are you targeting: what age is the audience you’re after?
MT: Anyone from 18 months to 119 years old! But seriously, there’s no doubt that the Mediterranawan diet is good for young and elderly alike. The 18 to 34 crowd interests me, of course, even though they’re not the highest profile shopping group. They understand health issues, and the concept that simple can be better. The younger crowd can better grasp the importance of using olive oil to replace butter. We;ll show them that you don’t have to spend one to three hours over a simmering sauce. Our tomato can label will show the consumer how to make a great “quick” sauce in just 10 minutes, and it’s every bit as dine as a slowly simmered sauce. The new consumer can’t spend hours over a stove the way our immigrant parents did. We’ll soon put out a new line of Pastene pasta sauces — these are fresh packed tomatoes, with fewer seeds, less acid and skins, which we pay a premium for, because our goal is quality. If they want quality, they’ll want Pastene. I know that every company says that, but we test our products incessantly, and we test the competition. It’s no accident that Pastene customers have been incredibly loyal to us. You know the government recently has come out with new regulations on product packaging; product labels will now give consumers much more information as to what they’re eating. Obviously, we’re very much in favor of more detailed labels (it helps, to be sure, that our products are all “natural”). We’re pushing to make sure that all our labels are in conformity with government regulations well in advance of the compliance date.
QRW: What about this Mediterranean diet? Will it be a trend that will go away?
MT: I don’t think so. How do you argue against thousands of years of existence? Pasta never went away, it was just abused. There are ranges of quality regarding pasta. Italy manufactures the best. The best wheat comes from Canada; they mill and manufacture it, and then export it back to us. This is why quality Italian pasta is a bit more expensive than what’s made here. We only carry the best Ialian pasta — 100 percent Italian. This is one of the primary staples of the Mediterranean diet. The there’s olive oil, olives, rice, tomatoes, beans (white, red, lentils), all classic dishes. The traditional American side dishes, like french fries are being replaced. Consumers will use less and less animal fat. One of the Harvard speakers said, “I don’t think anyone in public health can like meat anymore.”
QRW: What about former cuisines, like nouvelle?
MT: It was a great diet food because there was so little food on the plate. We were staring at plate patterns and artistically designed foods. The chefs were on their own ego trip. Everyone left hungry only they wouldn’t admit it. They went home again to eat.
QRW: Breads figure into this diet as well. What are your thoughts on this?
MT: Bread — real bread– whole grain bread, well-made bread is “in”. This too was abused. Again technology lead us astray. Have you tasted the excellent quality of bread at Boston’s better restaurants, like Olive’s? Seriously made bread is part of the 90s and of the next century.
QRW: What are the best national markets for Mediterranean/ Southern European foods?
MT: That’s easy. Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Why? Because they all had ethnic neighborhoods. They had Euopean immigrants mainly from the south of Europe. They came here and wanted a part of the old country. Pastene has given it to them at the turn of the century.
QRW: Pastene has a significant market share in the northeast corridor. You have offices in Boston and Montreal. Are you going national?
MT: Yes, of course, we’re interested in expanding our business, but we’ll do so only at a rate that still allows us to maintain our present quality. There’s no way we’re going to diminish our quality just for the sake of sales.
QRW: How about some anecdotes? A company as old as yours must have some.
MT: Our favorite is about Pancho Villa. Once Pastene was given a herd of castle for collateral for our crop. But Pancho Villa’s army came along and ate the entire herd. My grandfather went to Mexico in disguise to see what happened and to see if he could get paid. He didn’t succeed, but thirty years later we were paid in the same pesos of the time– it came to $30,000. We have lots of stories. Pastene has been around for a long time. Let me put it into historical perspective. We were around before Custer took his last stand. I guess we’re an American success story.
QRW: And here we stand. Happy birthday…