Recipe for making tomato passata
It’s been done like this in Italy for generations. The tomato passata (the base for tomato sauce) is the core of so many recipes in this country and making it at home is the core of so much family cooking.
There’s a good chance you’ve seen this in movies or read about it in books set in a romantic traditional Italy.
The whole family gets together on a sunny day towards the end of summer and, like a well-oiled (extra virgin) machine, they make the passata in a production line that would rival any factory. Except, unlike a factory, there’s probably a bit more laughter and definitely more wine.
In a villa in the hills above Siena, I am now a cog in that production line as part of a Tuscan cooking experience organised by Eating Italy Food Tours. From the garden to my stomach, we have the whole process covered.
The whole point of getting the family together to spend the day making the passata is to make the most of the tomato season and store enough to use for the many months to come. Getting it right is critical to the quality of meals the family will eat over the colder months before the red orbs of juicy goodness reappear.
To my mind, the most important thing is to have fun and make sure the wine doesn’t run out. But our guide Stefano Schieppati, who is the cook here at Villa Ferraia, has other priorities when I ask him for his tips.
“First you must use ripe tomatoes or you have a sour passata,” he says.
“And drain the water or when you open the jars you have to boil the passata for a long time and it will change the flavour and the taste.”
So we start in the garden where there are rows and rows of tomato plants. Not all are ready to be cooked so we roam through the vines, finding the red and ripe ones and throwing them into our basket. We’re going to need a lot to get a fair amount of the final product.
Up at our outdoor kitchen, with views over the hills and valleys of the Tuscan countryside, we get to work. The first step is to wash each of the tomatoes and cut out any black or rotting imperfections. Some little marks on the skin are fine, but we don’t want anything that’s corrupted the flesh.
Then the tomatoes are put in a large pot of boiling water and are left there for about two minutes to make them softer and ready for the rough treatment they’re about to endure.
In batches, we throw the tomatoes into a machine that looks like it could be part of a car engine (or a cruel torture apparatus). It has a fancy Italian name – passapomodoro – but is commonly known as a ‘tomato sauce maker’ or a ‘pulp machine’.
When the power is turned on, the tomatoes are pushed through and the skins are pulled off and the flesh is crushed. Excess water drains out through a pipe.
To get even more moisture out, we then take the crushed tomato pulp and put it into a sieve. Using a fork, we gently push the pulp around and let any leftover water fall out the bottom.
Finally, with the tomatoes almost looking and feeling like a paste, we put them into glass jars. The jars are then tightly sealed and put into an enormous pot of boiling water to seal and sterilise them. Stefano stresses this last and final point.
“Boil very well the jars after you close them,” he says. “So consider at least one hour from the boiling point.”
And then we’re done, that’s it. There’s probably not enough here for a whole year but, then again, we haven’t been at it all day.
The process we’ve been through has been authentic, though. It’s how people in this country have made their own supply for decades. And now, after a few hours outside, chopping, boiling, pulping, and pouring, we have all become one big Italian family ourselves.