Tomato passata making at Bar Idda

Making tomato passata (sauce) is an annual ritual for many Italian families that coincides with the end of summer. Australians reading this post might remember the movie Looking for Alibrandi (with Greta Scacchi, Pia Miranda and Anthony LaPaglia) made in 2000, which starts with teenager Josie Alibrandi begrudgingly participating in her family’s tomato day, or as she calls it, “national wog day”. Josie is embarrassed as she thinks her family act like “they never left Sicily”. I was reminiscing about this movie with one of the other participants of “I pomodori” today, a passata making class I went to at Bar Idda in Brunswick, Melbourne. The class was run by Alfredo La Spina, who owns this Sicilian inspired restaurant with his wife Lisa. I wrote about Bar Idda in a post some time back and it is one of my regular haunts. When I heard they were running a passata making class, I couldn’t wait to book in.

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My own memory of home made tomato passata was of hearing bottles explode a few days after they had been made in the cellar of our family home where they were stored. I asked Alfredo about the exploding tomato bottles and he said yes, that it can happen when the bottles have been filled too much or when gas has formed. He seemed pretty laid back about the exploding bottles, though for my father it was always a major catastrophe when it happened (maybe because he had to clean up the mess).

The class started off with an Italian style breakfast of coffee and cakes, before moving on to making the passata. Alfredo had salted a case of chopped Sorrento Roma tomatoes a few days earlier and left the tomatoes in a mesh basket to drain. We placed them in an electric juicing machine which got rid of the seeds and the skins and formed a deliciously sweet tomato juice. Lisa made us Virgin Marys with the fresh juice to enjoy whilst we worked. It was the best tomato based drink I have ever had – I wasn’t even missing the vodka (that you generally need when using tomato juice in a bottle from the supermarket)!

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If you don’t have a high powered electric juicer, you can always use a small manual one (like my parents used to) to extract the juice. Alfredo was telling us that his grandfather had made a juicer years ago using the motor from an old washing machine and made a wooden box to house the motor. This was used for years and the wood turned red from all the tomato that had been splashed on it.

The class had just under ten participants, making it intimate enough for us all to get a turn at the different tasks. A couple of us started off worked the juicing machine and others placed basil in sterilised bottles. The juice was salted to taste and then funnelled into the bottles which were sealed. These were then boiled in a large pot of water for 20 minutes, with cardboard between the bottles to stop them from smashing into each other. The bottles were going to be left in the water to cool overnight. Class participants will be picking up their bottles of tomato passata from the restaurant next week.

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After our class we shared a delicious lunch of salame and capocollo, caponata, penne alla Norma (pasta with tomato and eggplant topped with fresh ricotta) and an incredibly fresh cucumber salad with tomato sorbet made from passata, red wine vinegar and glucose. All this was accompanied by wine from the King Valley. It was a fun and great value class. If you don’t have an Italian family or friends to join in with for their tomato day, if you are in Melbourne you can join the Bar Idda family as they are holding another one next week (1st March 2014). After that you will have to wait until the 2015 tomato season when they will no doubt again run their annual passata making classes.

Have you ever tried home made passata? It is just delicious – and no comparison to the one you buy cheaply in bottles from the supermarket. By making your own passata you can choose the freshest and tastiest tomatoes to make a fresh and pure tomato sauce that traditionally would last you through the winter months. A 20 kg box of tomatoes, which you might be able to pick up cheaply from a market at the end of summer will make 20 one litre bottles of sauce. You only need three ingredients – tomatoes, basil and salt. You essentially add the salted tomato juice/pulp, which you have made by removing the skins and seeds to a pre-sterilised bottle containing fresh basil. Make sure you look for soft sweet Roma tomatoes which are super-ripe. The taste of the tomato passata at Bar Idda today was amazing – I can’t wait to collect my bottle and use it in a pasta sauce at home.

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If you would like to see Josie Alibrandi’s tomato day, the clip below is of the first nine minutes of the movie. At about the two minute mark you can hear Josie (Pia Miranda) complaining about “national wog day”. The song that accompanies it is Tintarella di luna”, one of my favorite older Italian songs originally sung by Mina in 1960.

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