La Passata Del Mezzogiorno (Tomato Sauce, Salento-Style)
Come late summer in these parts, you still see older folks gathering in small groups out in the countryside.
Someone will have an old radio on, set to some station where all the music was recorded back when full, lush symphonies were all the rage.
An old stew pot will be bubbling away on a nearly-forgotten flame. Water for the pasta will be coming to the boil. Someone will be tipping green beans, while someone else will be grating some strong sheep’s milk cheese. Still off school for the summer, young tan kids will be everywhere, chasing lizards or riding old rusty bikes down dusty roads.
It’ll be time to make the annual tomato sauce. I love it so much that I volunteer my services to anyone and everyone that will have me. I could be yours for a plate a pasta, a few sauteed snails and the contents of a reused water bottle of local malvasia.
It’s just that lately among literally hundreds of times of making passata in my life (I’ve made it 18 times, with different families, this summer alone), I’ve had a very uneasy feeling about making tomato sauce. And that uneasiness doesn’t seem to be going to go away today.
We’re just outside of a town called San Vito Dei Normanni, or Saint Vito of the Normans, a name the explains why you’ll see so many blue eyes among the local townspeople.
And even before 10 am, the back of my neck is tan and warm from picking so many tomatoes. At some point Rocco asks me how come I’m still not married. Still looking at the ground, I can hear the same concern in his voice as last year, when he asked me the same question.
‘I know, you’re right’, I say. ‘This year I’m going to make a change though. I’m thinking mail order’.
Half an hour passes in silence, until he says, ‘The Russian ones can be lovely’.
It occurs to me to tell him that I’m only joking, but then it sinks in that he just beat me at my own game.
We cut the tomatoes in half, or at least puncture them to avoid them exploding from the heat of a rabid olive-wood fire. A massive fist of fresh basil goes in the cauldrons, as does a whole box of sea salt.
The smell is the perfect mix of vibrant tomato and campfire, two of my favourite smells in the world.
The sound of the boiling tomatoes is bassy, metallic thuds, like the air bubbles coming up off a submarine.
After the tomatoes have boiled for one hour, only the pulp is lifted away and kept (the leftover water is cooled and then poured over the artichoke plants, which really thrive in salty soil).
The mill is mounted and a sense of giddiness spreads: this is the time when everyone IS going to get burned, although only superficially.
Dispensing with the normal motor on our mill that I tend to use at the school, Carmine uses a massive drill to increase the torque to impressive speeds. Each splatter causes yelps and giggles, the kind you hear when someone is playing with a sharp-toothed puppy.
Tiny but angry red welts raise under each splatter drop, until, eventually, like bee keepers, no one seems to care anymore.
I’ve known Carmine for years, and like every Southern farmer I’ve ever met, he tends to underestimate his own abilities.
He lost his fingertips making his own olive oil. He built his own home. Two of them, actually.
He makes his own wine, cans everything, supplying his children and grandchildren- and now great grandchildren- with the bounty of his garden.
And that is more or less the problem. Not him, he’s great. It’s the dependence on him, without it really ever being appreciated that that is what is actually happening.
Once the pulp has passed through the mill, which removes the skins and seeds, it’s time for bottling. And just like every Southern Italian farmer’s wife I know, Laura wastes nothing, right down to her reused caps. When I ask about their ongoing effectiveness, she waives it away saying, ‘we haven’t lost a single bottle in years’, a statement I can’t make myself.
Today we bottle four hundred bottles, which is on the high side. Everyone speaks proper Italian with me but breaks back into marble-mouth dialect when speaking with each other. Only half an hour away, it’s a dialect so different as to be incomprehensible to anyone from Lecce.
I work in silence, just listening to the foreign tongue, the wind ripping through the fig trees and the electronic pings from the nearby hand-held video games. Several kids have been rapt with them all afternoon.
We finish filling the last of the bottles at around 5 pm. We’ll load them into reused oil drums and cover them with water that has been heated for days in the sun. Old fiscoli- the jute mattes used for pressing olive oil- are used to buffer the layers of bottles. I build a new olive-wood fire under the oil drums.
After the water comes back to the boil for half an hour, the fire is left to burn out.
In two days, when the bottles are cool to the touch, they’ll be unloaded and consumed over the course of the next year. The last three bottles from last year dressed our pasta for lunch today. I’m sure there was some home economics employed to make it stretch just perfectly, a fact revealed in shy smiles.
But what was been my returning thought, all week in fact, is how old I feel making tomato sauce with this family. I’m the youngest person here working and I’m in my late 30’s. After me, everyone is 50 or above. Carmine is in his 80’s.
This is not that ‘kids these days’ rant. It’s the parents that have me concerned (and while I know and love this generous family and have for years, I’ve not shown their faces on purpose. I’ve also changed their names). This is not to shame them (the adults are wonderful people, fiercely proud of their traditions, which is why I’m here to help out as much as I am). I mean to speak of something bigger. Part of the problem is the self-loathing farmer, those who want better for their children. Part of it is the availability of grocery stores and supermarkets, something that didn’t exist here only a generation ago. Part of it is ease. It IS hot. It IS hard work. It IS holiday season, when most young people want to take to the beaches.
And while I fixate on my own backyard– Italy’s ‘Halfday’– it’s a problem that is happening the whole world over, the rapid lose of culture and cuisine, happening right under the noses of those claiming to be the proudest of them.
‘We make our own’, you’ll hear local 30 year olds bragging about the sauce in their cupboards, the reused bottles exactly like the ones we bottled today.
‘But do YOU make it’, you’ll ask, hoping to find someone who still does. ‘Well, me, no… but…. my grandmother….’
And just like it’s not the ‘kids these days’ rant, so too is not the ‘letter writing versus email’, or any of the old dinosaur’s argument made in the face of a changing world. If you could see the look of pride on the faces of those 30-year old’s when holding the jar, who’ll see a real value in their eyes in that homemade sauce. And sadly, you’ll also see the disconnect between that jar, and what the word ‘ours’ really means.
With the drums loaded, I kiss and hug everyone and make arrangements to see them all in a few weeks. Reaching for my car keys, Laura fills my fingertips with bags of fresh figs, artichokes and a little fruit that doesn’t translate into English.
As I pick up speed heading down the open road in my little turquoise FIAT, my skin dry and salty from the day under the sun, I rehearse the same speech as I have on many occasions, each time while driving home from making tomato sauce out in the country side.
In my mind’s eye I look down to see my dark-eyed children, tanned and wild-looking from their time away from school.
I say, ‘Come around my angels, come watch Papà. This is how we cut the tomatoes. You see? This is how we build a fire. This is how much salt to add. One of you go pick some basil from the garden. You see? This is how we jar them. This is very important. All of you look at me. Look at me. You need to learn to do this. This is what WE eat.’
‘This is what WE do, together’.
‘As a family, this is who WE are’.
‘Excellent, my little brown peanut. Now, take the basil that your sister gathered and ……’