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.