This annual tradition was introduced to many Australians in Melina Marchetta’s iconic novel, Looking for Alibrandi, which opens with a passata making scene on a hot summer’s day in Sydney.
Though the ritual faces extinction in Italy, the garages of many Italo-Australian families still become a second kitchen at this time of the year, while everyone works together in a process which has been passed down for generations, just as it would have been back in the Belpaese.
Running in the veins of most Italians, passata is the base for all Italian tomato sauces.
Essentially, it’s a raw tomato puree which is seasoned liberally with salt, bottled and preserved to be used in dishes throughout the year.
It can’t be eaten directly from the bottle as it requires cooking until the tomatoes’ raw acidity is neutralised and the sauce is thickened for eating, once herbs and other ingredients have been added for flavour.
Only two ingredients are required to make passata: tomatoes and salt.
While the tomatoes are the hero of this specialty, salt also plays an integral role.
It’s added to the passata just prior to pouring and sealing the bottles to season the sauce and help preserve it so that it will last up to three years.
The number one rule of Italian cuisine is quality over quantity, and though few ingredients are needed to make passata, it’s crucial to source the best quality products.
In Australia, tomatoes for passata are sourced from backyards, grocers and farmers, and are often advertised in the back pages of Il Globo and La Fiamma during this time.
Generally speaking, tomatoes are juicy and ripe for the picking around late summer or early autumn.
The best tomatoes for making passata are the oval-shaped plum variety, to which Italy’s famous San Marzano tomato belongs.
These tomatoes are bursting with flavour and are bred for sauce purposes.
They tend to be less watery, with more flesh and fewer seeds, than other tomatoes.
Once the produce has been sourced, the process of turning the humble tomatoes into a rich and tasty sauce begins.
Like any Italian recipe, there are many different versions of passata and each family will have its own special – and perhaps secret – formula.
For example, while some families like to place a fresh basil leaf in the bottles to infuse into the passata, others like to keep it simple and leave out any herbs until cooking with the sauce later on.
There is one universal law, however: every family member has a role to play, from the children to the passata making veterans, and nobody is left out.
Put simply, the tomatoes are trimmed of any blemishes and cut and squeezed, ready for mincing.
A manual or electric machine then processes the tomatoes until they become a puree.
The passata is then poured into bottles, which are often recycled from the previous year and sterilised.
The glass bottles are then capped, laid in drums which are lined with towels, and boiled in water until they’re sealed.
The entire day, more often than not, culminates in a celebratory lunch starring the fruit of the family’s labour.