There’s a rumour that Melbourne hospitals lay on extra staff in the Emergency Department at this time of year.
Yes, it’s tomato season and given our vast migrant population, there will invariably be a few home-bottling and canning disasters. Every Italian family will be firing up boiling vats of tomatoes in the backyard, and making a day of it. Think of Looking for Alibrandi. Young and old they’ll all be there; along with food, wine, music and arguing, making the perfect passata, my dream family. As a guest poster on Tomato, it seems apt to have a go at this tomato tradition, although in the absence of Nonnas or a backyard I will make do with the Aga instead of the 44 gallon drum and blazing backyard fire.
While most of us might make a small quantity with our own home-grown produce or a trip to the market, there is another option. Just head North-West out of the city and there you will find a bounty of road-side boxes of tomatoes for sale. Marco was my man, and sold me a box for only $15. Apparently there are about 5000 varieties of tomatoes in the world, but in Melbourne’s North-Western suburbs, Roma seems to be the tomato of choice.
I thought passsata was really an Italian thing, but my Greek neighbours look at me with new respect as I heave the polystyrene box of Romas out of the car.
I don’t want to let Marco and the team down, but I am a busy woman, and apart from not wanting to alarm the neighbours by lighting a bonfire in the street, I am looking for an easier method.
This is what I came up with:
First I washed the tomatoes, and cut off any manky or bruised bits before cutting them in half and tossing them in my largest stock pot. The larger ones I quartered. Purists might skin the tomatoes first, but I have a lot of tomatoes and little patience. I chose to keep the heat low to avoid scorching the bottom, especially as stirring such a vast quantity proves to be a challenge. I am romantic – slow cooking almost always tastes better. Bung the lid on and leave them be. The temptation to throw in seasoning is strong, but instead I choose to stick with tradition, passata is simply tomato, nothing more.
Six hours later, and after some distraction from both Massimo Bottura on Art, Theatre, Politics, Food as a part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, and the annual Nude Bike Ride passing through my ‘hood, the tomatoes finally reduce to this.
While waiting for the sauce to reduce, I sterilised the bottles, using the very hot wash of the dishwasher.
In the absence of a nonna to help sieve, I enlisted the help of my ancient Macina-Legumi, and the BF. This did not take as long as expected, although for backyard-bottling quantities a commercial food-mill would be a good idea.
From here on it was plain sailing. We reduced the resulting puree slightly to reach the desired thickness.
The thickened passata was then poured into a funnel into the bottles. Had my basil crop been a little healthier I would have dropped a few leaves in at this stage. It’s important not to fill the bottles to the very top.
The lids were then lightly screwed on, allowing a little air to escape, and the bottles wrapped in tea towels to avoid breakage, before being placed into a large pot of simmering water for about 20 minutes.
Upon removing the bottles from the water we tightened the lids, which later ‘popped’ as they cooled, leaving an indented lid. If any fail to ‘pop’ they can be reheated and sealed again.
From Marco’s single box of tomatoes I have produced ten large bottles of passata and two of a spicy tomato sauce without the loss of a finger, or setting fire to the street, and with the newly gained respect of my neighbours, and hopefully, Marco.