La salsa di pomodoro – Summer in a bottle.

italian canned tomatoes

 

These days I use commercial canned tomatoes from Italy. However I grew up with home made canned tomatoes. These are my memories of long-gone days: canning tomatoes in our garden,  in late Summer, in the early Seventies. Between the end of August and the first two weeks in September, a large part of Italy smells of tomato sauce.It is the right time to make la salsa di pomodoro– the tastiest end-of-summer tomatoes, now at their most plentiful and cheapest, are canned for winter.

The tomatoes are passed through a special vegetable mill to get a smooth tomato sauce (the classic salsa di pomodoro)or they can be skinned and left whole, to make what we call i pelati. Everything is put into jars, sterilised and put way. “Why bother?” – excellent canned tomatoes are now widely available. True, I agree. Yet, nothing can beat the deep, luscious taste and the dramatic colour of home made canned tomatoes that are prepared using summer fruits, ripened under the harsh August sun. Tomato is perhaps the most important ingredient of the Italian kitchen and no wonder that very many Italians still go at lengths in order to have it at its best.

I do not prepare la salsa myself, but when I get a few jars, from friends or family, I know it is a special, precious gift. To make la salsa is hard work.  Donkey years ago, my family too used to make it and we kids had a role to play in the event. It was not hundred per cent fun for an eight year old.

I could feel in the air “I pomodori” was coming – that’s how the whole process was called in my family. By the first week of September, my mum and my aunties had been discussing I pomodorifor weeks. My mum, never too keen on such domestic duties, tried to minimise the effort by refusing flat to make the labour intensive pelati– smooth passataonly for us. Still, it was a major operation that required good timing, organisation and military precision.

Prices and quality of tomatoes were compared with professional eye and eventually the best deal was tracked down – hundreds of kilos of tomatoes to go and fetch. The tomatoes arrived in dirty wood crates and had to be washed first. We used our garden pump – this was fun. We kids ended up wet in less than ten minutes, of course. The tomatoes were then stored again in their (cleaned) crates. This happened the day before.

In the preceding days, countless glass bottles and jars had already been retrieved from the downstairs cellar, washed and dried up. Thick beer bottles were preferred for la passata, and fat, wide-mouthed jam jars for I pelati. New corks had been bought, the preserving pans washed and lots of wool cloths gathered – they were going to be wrapped around the bottles and jars in order to avoid breakage during the sterilization. Anxiety mounted if the weather showed signs of deterioration. A perfect sunny day was imperative since the whole process was going to be carried out outdoors in our backyard: a couple of tables for assembling the tomato sauce, gas burners, preserving pans and a huge caldron for sterilizing.

On the big day, the tomatoes were first cut up and left to simmer briefly in the preserving pans in order to soften them and to get rid off some of their vegetable water. Because of the quantities involved, these pans were placed both on the kitchen cooker and on the gas burners outside – in little time the whole neighbourhood smelled of tomato sauce.
Then the whole lot was passed through special vegetable mills called passapomodoro that could separate the pulp from the skin and the seeds. It was one of my aunties to take over here.She insisted on simmering this tomato pulp rather briefly and bottle it straight away, with few basil leaves tucked in. No oil, no salt, no sugar. Pure and simple salsa di pomodoro.
When, during winter, you would use it, the salsa tasted fresh and zesty and could undergo further cooking without – real summer in a bottle. She was right.

We kids played the go-betweens at the adults beck and call – we were asked to perform those small, all important bits – “Go and fetch this”, “Stuck the basil inside the bottles”, I remember. Boring, after the initial excitement.
When everything was bottled and corked, it must be sterilized. The well wrapped bottles were placed in a huge, Machbethean caldron that was filled with water and slowly brought to the simmer. This took ages. By now we kids were utterly bored and the adults were busy cleaning up.

After one good hour (or was it more?) of gentle simmering, the gas was switched off the bottles were left to cool in the water.In the evening they were fished out, dried, distributed amongst the family and put back on the cellar shelves.At that point everyone was exhausted – my mum would swear that never again she would repeat the ordeal next year. For few years she was proven wrong. Then I pomodori suddenly stopped. It was the end of an important chapter in my family history, in my life. Now they are sweet memories.

 

20 thoughts on “La salsa di pomodoro – Summer in a bottle.

  1. I recently spent 3 days making a wonderfully delicious, deep and rich tomato sauce from a million cherry tomatoes. Then I had to leave town for an emergency, so I put the giant jar in the freezer. And the giant jar cracked in my freezer. I was sure there was enough air space at the top, but evidently not. It was so sad.

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    1. arghhh… odd: I was just wondering few days ago if it is ok to put full jam jars in the fridge… I had read that modern jars are very sturdy… now I read this… hum… thanks… will look into this…. apart from the wasted toms.. the cleaning!! – hey ho,… let’s smile and march on 🙂

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      1. Ironically, these jars I have are Italian made – Bormioli brand. Fortunately the sauce didn’t explode in the freezer, just large cracks, but not worth risking keeping it. I would always leave space at the top, but obviously I need to leave more!

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  2. What a nice memory. I know my grandparents had similar procedures for canning local vegetables (obviously no tomatoes) up until the fifties I think. Definitely not in the seventies and I don’t believe many people here still do this kind of thing — people with a vegetable garden just freeze stuff.

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    1. ah… the freezing thing! -. my parents went that phase too… minestrone in a bag, ecc… tons of vegetables to prep… another boring task for a kid (even if, to be completely honest), I would help for a very very little time

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  3. Stefano – perhaps it’s because my experience was so urban and cut off for the kitchen that I love to do this now. But with tens, not hundreds of kilos, and grown myself – so I am duty bound not to let them go to waste. I always reserve the last jar to make a Bloody Mary with whilst making the new batch. Lovely read – thank you.

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  4. I cannot begin to imagine how long it took to prep hundreds of kilos of tomatoes. I make passata every year if we have a glut – I know no Italian will agree that English tomatoes can be as good as Italian ones – all that sun – but home grown toms still make a fabulous sauce!

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    1. I agree with you: also because one should really see the positive side, the half full glass… all in all quality is getting better in the uk and for that I am immensely grateful.

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  5. What a wonderful read to begin my Sunday. I can only imagine the tedium you felt as a child, but what memories i pomodori gave you. Thanks so much for sharing this story, Ste.

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  6. Wow, “hundreds of kilos” of tomatoes? Did I read that right? That must have been quite an ordeal? I wonder if putting up tomatoes is now *just* a memory, or do you carry on the ritual, albeit on a more modest scale?

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    1. it is just a memory… but.. who knows-
      did Angelina do it? or were u spared the tedious task (for a kid of course, now I see the whole thing in a totally different light)
      .. and yes: hundreds of kgs we had to make tomato sauce enough for 2 to 3 families, to last for the whole year

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      1. I think she did it, or someone in the family, since around this time of year bottles of tomatoes would appear in her pantry. But I wasn’t involved, for better or for worse. Never did know where they came from… I should have asked while I had the chance!

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  7. Your story brought a smile to my lips – my husband had to undergo the very same dreaded salsa-making ‘adventure’ every summer as a child!!! He tells the story in a way very much similar to yours, with all the adults being on edge and the kids worried about breaking things and/or getting into trouble and everyone, on the whole, wishing the whole thing to be over and done with. And yet what lovely salsa was to be had, hey?

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    1. …yes… that fear that after all that work, things could go pear shaped during cooking…
      do YOU do any of this? canning, preserving ecc?

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