The idealised version of Tomato Day (tomato passata or purée making day) generally occurs in Melbourne some time between mid February and early March. In recent years it has become a staged event, promoted by celebrities who may or may not have Italian heritage, and who may have dubious reasons for popularising it, or by farmers markets and community groups with more noble motives. Traditionally, the day has been heralded by large hand painted signs along the arterial roads of the less fashionable suburbs of Melbourne, often in front of abandoned warehouses or petrol stations. The signs read:
Pomodori per Salsa or Si Vende Pomodori e Uva
or ‘tomatoes for sauce or tomatoes and grapes sold here’. Large boxes of tomatoes, usually sourced from commercial tomato farms, arrive at these places in late summer. Perhaps we could call them tomato pop up shops? Gli Italo- Australiani have always bought tomatoes in 20 kilo boxes for their annual passata or tomato puree making day but as Melbourne’s Italian born demographic ages and slowly dies out, the tradition now relies on the younger generation and others interested in home preserving.
This event came sharply into focus for many young Australians, especially those of Italian heritage, with the release of the film Looking for Alibrandi, one of my favourite Australian movies, which won the Australian Film Institute award for the best film in 2000. Following its success, the book on which the film is based, by Melina Marchetti, was studied in English in most schools, and the film was included in the year 12 Italian optional study on Emigrazione Italiana in Australia. Check out the opening scene from the movie:
If only I could have a tomato day once every summer. When you grow your own tomatoes, the crops will decide when, and how often, you make passata di pomodori. Roma tomatoes or other varieties of plum tomatoes, like San Marzano, are the preferred tomatoes for bottling (canning) as they have thick skin, few seeds and can safely sit around on benches, developing more intensity of colour and flavour, for at least a week. When I get around 5 kilo of deep red coloured tomatoes, usually once a week during January and February, it’s Passata Day again!
The tomato passata recipe should be kept simple. I use only tomatoes and a basil leaf. It is not a recipe as such, but a method. Gather all your equipment before hand and seduce a friend into helping.
For pureeing the tomatoes, I use a hand cranked mouli with the finest attachment. It’s hard work turning that handle! I am dreaming of a small, electric version and am putting in an early request so that Father Christmas or La Befana or someone impersonating either will buy me one next year. In the meantime, very good results can be obtained with a mouli.
The Method and Equipment.
- tomatoes (I usually process between 3 and 5 kilo at a time)
- fresh basil leaves
- passata jars and lids, sterilised
- some large bowls
- a jug
- tea towels- to drain the wet tomatoes and to place under the bowl and mouli to stabilise.
Gather your tomatoes and wash them. Cut a cross in the skin with a sharp knife (it helps loosen the skin) and remove any stalks. Boil up kettles of water, add the tomatoes to a large bowl and cover with boiling water for 1 minute or less, then scoop them out of their bath and dry on a tea towel. You may need to do this step in batches, so have more boiling water ready to add to your bowl and tomatoes.
After draining, cut them in half and put them in a mouli with a disc on the finest setting and puree, which removes all the skin and seeds. Sit the mouli over a bowl of the same size to catch the puree.
Pour the puree into a jug then pour into sterilised jars. Add a small basil leaf to the jar, and leave a 3 cm gap from the lid.
When all the jars are filled and capped, fill a large preserving pan with water (as tall or taller than the jars or bottles). You may add a folded teatowel to the base of the pan to stop the bottles rattling around- I usually don’t bother with this. Add the jars to the cold water, bring to the boil, boil for 30 minutes, then leave in the water bath for a day. You may hear the caps pop indicating a good seal.
Store in a cool dark place for up to 3 years but they probably won’t last that long. Add to pasta sauces, casseroles, and soups during winter.
Used tomato passata bottles can be found in op shops (thrift stores) or can be purchased new. In the past, tomato passata was made and cooked in beer bottles but this practice is slowly dying out too. New lids are also sold in many Italian kitchen ware shops in packets of 20.
Good links on this theme:
Do you make Tomato Passata for the year? Did you learn this from your Nonna or Nonno? And have you seen the film Looking for Alibrandi?