Recently, I tagged along with some friends from work to an event that has been on my bucket list since watching looking for Looking for Alibrandi as an impressionable teen – passata day. Otherwise known as tomato day, this annual tradition is carried out by Italian families around the world, usually in the middle of summer when tomatoes are at their most abundant. It’s a whole day sort of affair, with many hands boiling, chopping and pureeing their way to enough sauce to last for the following 12 months – after some has been set aside for a well-deserved lunch of course!
We gathered at around 7.30am on the back deck of Rosina’s house on a Saturday in early February. Passata day, I quickly learnt, is not a leisurely affair. There is a job for everyone to be doing at all times, and idle hands are quickly put back to work. We had 120 kilos of tomatoes to get through, and there was no time to waste.
We actually started with turning 40 kilos of the tomatoes into small pieces to be bottled, rather than traditional passata. To do this, we had to blanch the tomatoes, cool them and then peel, core, halve and squeeze the juice out. Rosina had the back deck all set up ready for us to get our hands dirty with the latter part, while Bianca was on blanching duty inside.
Peeling, coring, squeezing, bottling. Sounded like a pretty simple process to me – and it in a way it was. A simple process that took up about 80% of the day! I was on coring duty which took me ages with my little knife (maybe it was just my slow, non-Italian hands) – luckily Mark saved the day by turning up with an actual corer, at which point I abandoned my duties and just wandered around helping (or getting in the way) here and there and taking photos. The real star of the day was Rosina’s nonna, who called everyone darling and whose 90 year old hands cut tomatoes in half faster than any of us could keep up with!
Once the juice and seeds were squeezed out of the pieces, they went into a bucket to be bottled. The juice got ferried back inside to Bianca, who was reducing it down into a beautiful rich sauce, while also continuing to blanch and peel tomatoes.
Once we had FINALLY juiced all the pieces, it was time for Rosina to get out her custom-made tomato squishing stick and jam the jars full of tomato-y goodness.
After all that effort, we had been working away for about 3 hours and it was time for a piece of cake and some mushroom arancini that had been made by Bianca the night before – as well as more coffee of course!
After we refuelled, it was time for making the passata. As I understand it, almost every Italian has an opinion on how you should make passata – some cook the tomatoes, some bottle them raw, some add sugar, salt, garlic and/or basil. We were doing ours raw, and adding a very small amount of salt to the juice and some fresh basil from Rosina’s garden into the jars.
By the time we started this process it was about 10.30, we were only one third of the way through the tomatoes and I was wondering if we were going to be there until well into the evening. Turns out I had no need to worry though – once we had chopped the first box and of tomatoes and turned on the machine it became apparent this part of the day was going to be a lot easier than the first. This thing swallowed the halved tomatoes with no need to core or de-seed them beforehand, and spat out the juice at an almost alarming rate. Particularly alarming when we turned it on for the first time without putting the shield over it, sending tomato juice splattering all over the deck! We got it together though, and with four people chopping, one person juicing and Genelle and I filling bottles we got through the rest of the tomatoes in about two hours.
Once all the jars were filled, they were into the barrel for pastuerising, and it was time to sit down for a yummy lunch.
Bianca had been inside slaving away over the stove all this time, and had prepared us some yummy pasta and sugo, using the sauce we had made that very day. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of the pasta with the sauce, because as soon as it hit the plate we all pretty much inhaled it. After pasta, we had cottolette with the leftover sauce on our plates, again made by Bianca the night before which was absolutely heavenly! Last but not least, we had some yummy chocolate cake made by Sonja.
And that was passata day! I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and went home with 8 bottles of passata and 2 bottles chock-full of tomato pieces. Our passata turned out a little watery because the torrential summer rains the week before had waterlogged the tomatoes, but I had planned on boiling mine down to make a richer sauce in any case. I have since made a lasagne with the sauce, and it was once of the tastiest I have ever had. Sign me up for next year!