An Italian tradition held in the midst of Summer to celebrate and preserve the season's best tomatoes for the following year, passata day is a day for a family to get together and get a bit messy. I tag along to the passata day at Rosemary and Joe Marando's house, a tradition that has been going strong in their family for 40 years.
The washing machine motor whirrs while Rosemary presses down on the passapomodoro with a wooden stick. I watch as the blood red tomatoes produce a pale, almost pink juice that comes out the other end through a sliced off juice container positioned to deliver the juice into the bucket below. The tomatoes will then be pressed a further two times to extract every bit of goodness out of them. This is all part of Rosemary and Joe's Marando's annual passata making day. It is something that they've been doing for the past 40 years.
During the height of summer may Italian families make a whole day out of making passata. It may involve their whole family or an extended family (or in our case, two interlopers myself and Belinda, she is Rosemary's friend). They make enough tomato passata or tomato sauce to last for the coming year. On this early morning Rosemary's aunt Rosa and her husband Frank are busy cutting the tomatoes.
Joe shows me the boxes of the Roma tomatoes - these are best for making passata in place of San Marzano tomatoes. Green or unripe tomatoes are no good at all - you want ripe but not rotten tomatoes. I watch as Rosa and Frank cut off the stem of the tomato and then quarter them so that they can fit through the passapomodoro or tomato press. Slicing up the tomatoes takes a lot of time and after a box of tomatoes is sliced, it is transferred to another tray when it passes through the press three times to extract as much as possible. Belinda is assigned with placing fresh basil leaves in the bottles. The only thing that will be added to the passata apart from tomatoes and basil is perhaps some sugar if the tomatoes need it.
Passata recipes differ within families. Joe's mother used to boil the tomatoes but Rosemary's mother didn't and so now they use the non boiling method. Sometimes Rosemary cooks it with garlic and basil so that the passata is a ready made pasta sauce. When peeled tomatoes were hard to buy in Australia, they used to cut tomatoes into thirds and slip them into bottles and jars. Rosemary's mother arrived in Australia in 1949 while her father arrived in 1938 from Calabria in Italy.
Their daughter Josie and her kids Adam and Sophia join in on the preparations. The messiest job is the person pressing the tomatoes ("It looks like a murder scene!" Belinda says) and Josie recalls this ritual during her childhood. Some of the bottles are vintage bottles having lasted being used every year for the last 40 years. They simply wash and reuse them securing them with bottle stoppers. Many of these large beer bottles were purchased from reception lounges.
Young Adam watches Joe filling the bottles - he will fill them up with a couple of inches free so that the passata can expand. They are both eager for the tradition to be passed down to the other generations. Nowadays passata is easy to buy and a good Italian passata can be found for $3 a bottle but it's not just the $1 per bottle cost of a home made passata. "You can taste the difference," Rosemary and Joe say. I try a glass of the fresh tomato sauce and it is delicious - full of flavour and it doesn't need any sugar or salt as a drink.
"It doesn't matter about who makes the passata, the most important part is closing the bottle," Josie says. Indeed Joe is the one responsible for the final seal. Because of course if you don't seal it properly, then your precious supply of passata is spoiled. He places a bottle cap and presses down firmly to seal it.
In these quantities, they use 44 gallon drums to boil or "can" the passata. Each drum fits about 92 bottles laid flat and they are boiled for two hours. The next day they will drain the water, wash the outside of the bottles and the passata is ready. They get shelved lengthways behind a cloth in the garage.
Rosemary takes a quantity of the fresh sauce into her kitchen. Another part of passata day is a pasta lunch using the freshly made sauce. They try to get all of the passata done before lunch time because once people have lunch, they are relaxed and less enthusiastic about returning to passata making duties. She adds onion, garlic and olive oil to the passata, brings it to a boil and props a wooden spoon on the side to allow a little evaporation and to prevent it from boiling over. It goes from a pink shade to a vivid crimson red over the course of about an hour.
Joe shows me their enormous garden with fresh basil, ox heart tomatoes and giant Italian marrow. "Smell that!" he says pausing during our garden walk. Through the vent he smells Rosemary's tomato sauce. Between attending to her sauce, Rosemary checks on the progress and come 1pm, it is almost done.
"It's one day of mess but it's worth the cleaning," she says taking the red stained cloth that steadied the tomato press. They use high powered hoses to clean off the remnants and then Joe lights the fire to start boiling the bottles of passata that have been carefully stacked. It is only when the fire is roaring that everyone adjourns to the dining room to partake of a scrumptious meal with tomato pasta, bruschetta, roast chicken and salads.
"It's a tradition. We eat spaghetti, we like our sauce. It just boils down to that," Joe explains simply.
Watch a video of passata day!
Want to make your own passata?
- Now is the time to make passata, when tomatoes are at their best and cheapest. The main time for passata making used to be January but it is weather dependent and Rosemary explains that because this year had a lot of rain, it is a bit later. The best tomatoes come from Victoria according to Rosemary.
- It is best done as a team or family effort. Sometimes families share the tasks and the number of bottles of passata taken home are related to the number of boxes of tomatoes brought.
- Each box has between 18-20 kilos of tomatoes and you should get between 15-18 bottles from one box.
- You can get roughly 200 bottles of passata for 12 large boxes of tomatoes (Rosemary and Joe's record is 800 bottles one year)
- Use red, ripe Roma tomatoes or San Marzano tomatoes if you can get them.
- A press is a necessity. A motorised one helps speed things up immeasurably. Press tomatoes three times.
- Wear clothes that you don't mind getting dirty (sorry that is obvious isn't it?).
- Leave a couple of inches at the top for the passata to expand when it is being boiled. Otherwise your bottle will explode and the top will come off.
- A good seal is vital.
- Cook the bottles for at least two hours.
- Store the passata in a dark, cool place. Much like wine.
So tell me Dear Reader, do you do much preserving or canning? Have you ever been to a passata day? Is there a dish that you make as a family or group?