‘E mo’ si balla belle mie‘, I say to the last three remaining bottles of tomato sauce in the back recesses of the storage shelves, ‘It’s time to dance, my beauties’. I crack the seal on one of them and the castle kitchen fills with the tangy, saline blood-smell of tomatoes. But not just ‘tomatoes’, particular ones, distinct ones, ones that pull my mind back through the months of the calendar, past holidays and long weekends, on past the soggy-soiled spring and then on into the frigid and runny-nosed winter, rewinding through last autumn and back into the precise moment of the summer when we canned them, the backward passage of time as jarring as the warbling sound of rewinding a phonograph.
I guess you could call it ‘culinary anthropomorphism’, this strange desire to see our canning projects as the preparation of readied playmates, old friends that stand guard over us throughout the year until called into action, storing the precise moments of a distinct day in a particular season, the same way that wound grandfather clocks store up the multiple twists of long-forgotten wrists.
That we make our tomato sauce for the year actually on our school’s birthday only adds to it, making the making of the sauce more the sober reflection of the passsage of yet another year, more vivid to me than my own birthday, or any New Year’s Eve, regardless of how truffle-studded.
We schedule it for the middle of our birthday week each year. And even though the technique is simply, the process itself couldn’t be more profound.
Here in the south most of us ‘water bottles’ for the tomato sauce, with many of the bottles going back farther than anyone can remember. Only the caps are new each year. Some of the families with whom I’ve made ‘la salsa’ never bother to remove the labels, which instantly dates many of their bottles into the late 50’s or early 60’s, when for the first time supermarkets first arrived in Italy. That these bottles still receive an annual round as salsa containers points to the thrifty nature of the post war generation, suggestion that ‘recycling’ is only new as a buzzword.
First you wash the tomatoes. This year we used San Marzano tomatoes rather than the local choice of the fiaschietto, a little pointed version that gives a tangier sauce. Most years, I do separate batches of both.
You cut or crush the tomatoes so that they cook from within, releasing their juices as the come to the boil. Still though, every year at least one tomato makes it into the cauldron without being cut: it blows up into an angry puff ball, threatening to burst, literally at the boiling point.
Without even a discussion, brigades begin to form, a washing station, a cutting station, with turns at the ‘oar’ passed around to avoid sore shoulder blades.
Here Giulio takes his turn, the wooden spoon requiring enough torque to produce hot spots on the palm and sides of your index fingers. (Yes, his name is really ‘Giorgio’ but so many kept getting his name wrong that ‘Giulio’ just eventually stuck).
The ingredients are straight forward as well. Onions, bay leaves, salt and tomatoes, then a basil leaf for the bottle. In the late summer sun, the colours tend to burn into your brain, a red redder than really red.
Here Fiona from South Africa works the cutting station, if only to be nearer the wine, she says.
Once into the cauldrons, you boil the tomatoes for one hour, which reduces their juices, concentrates their flavours but also sterilises them, so that nothing can grow once they go into the bottle. Shorten this step and you’ll never wonder again what a Jackson Pollack affresco would have looked like. Once fermentation happens, the bottles begin to explode, shooting glass shards and putrid sauce across the room. Do it wrong once and you’ll never do it wrong again.
At the boiling point, you run the pulp through a food mill that removes the skins and seeds, leaving behind pure tomato sauce, certainly much thinner than what is for sale outside of Italy. ‘At the boiling point’ is the important phrase too, as each splatter causes death threats and giggles. It’s my favourite part I think. If only for the really good blasphemy and swearing involving garden tools and pneumatic jacks.
As the bottles slowly start to gather, the sense of ‘salsa‘ becomes ‘la salsa del anno‘, or the yearly sauce. A sense of ‘us’ starts to take place too though, that ‘I’ did this or that part of the process but ‘we’ did this together. It is perhaps this loss of the sense of community that bothers me most about the changes in Southern Italian food ways. Sure, in my opinion, it’s still the best food in the world. It’s healthy, it’s vibrant and crafty and brilliant, in how women in the past figured out over time as a group how to create so much from so very, very little.
It’s making la salsa is also a dying practice, something that makes the domestic newspapers. ‘A man on a mission, Silvestori keeps traditions alive by stoking local interest with his students’ hands’ read our last write up.
And this is what our school does best, keeping Southern Italian traditions alive through your interest in them. Yes, it’s a lot of fun making the salsa. Yes, our class unites over it and postcards years later still mention the dirty finger nails, or how we left tomato seeds at the bottom of the baron’s pool when as a class we skinny dipped in the dark that night. That’s the role of a cooking school, of a culinary holiday. And we do do that, really well I think. But I’m talking about something deeper than that.
You as a traveller have a choice. You can choose to believe that all the world’s cultures are made of titanium and will be around forever for your enjoyment, that the act of seeing that culture is passive and incidental. Or you can share my view, that travellers today are participants in the things that they come to see. That there is interaction, participation. And perhaps more importantly, that travellers must play a part in perserving the things they deemed worthy of a visit.
There won’t be horns tooted when the last group of people gather in Southern Italy to make the yearly tomato sauce, signaling the end of an era here. It won’t make the evening news. No one will write a book about it. There won’t be an app. for that.
About the only thing that I can say for sure about it is, it won’t happen while I’m still alive. Not while I still have my green bottles.
Our school is the mirror back to the local community. And slowly, things begin to change. Families read the newspaper and see our students and remember the green bottles down in their cellar. School kids ask their parents why they no longer make it, and the parents ask themselves the same quetion. College graduates suddedly think it’s hip again. And on.
The smiles are certainly visible in this picture. And you can almost smell the sweat, hear the bassy bubbling of the cauldrons, the laughter of a red wine-soaked banter.
Here I present you our birthday class of 2011 and the 340 litres of salsa that we made together as a school. It will be the sauce that dresses the pasta that you will make if you visit us before next September. In front of this group of Italian culinary patrons are the bottles that will survive the windy winter, on into next spring and up until the return of the ripening tomatoes, the pretty green bottles, my faithful companions through the upcoming year.