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How tomato sauce is made in Italy

Claudia Romeo   

How tomato sauce is made in Italy
  • Every summer, Isabella, her mother, Dina, and her daughter, Federica, honor the family tradition and make tomato sauce in their garden.

  • The process is a laborious one that takes several hours, from hand picking each tomato to adding basil leaves into jars one by one.

  • This year, the family has turned more than 200 kilos of tomatoes into sauce.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Claudia Romeo: We're in Corato, Puglia, Italy, and today I'm going to meet with Isabella and her family, who are going to show me how they make their tomato sauce, in their garden. Finding a family that makes traditional tomato sauce from their own tomatoes in their own house has become pretty rare, sadly, here in Italy. This is such a fascinating tradition, and, most of all, it is the original way to make it. So, they've got about 20 kilos of tomatoes ready for us. Let's go and turn them into sauce.

Making tomato sauce from scratch is a laborious process that takes several hours, from handpicking each tomato to adding basil leaves into jars one by one. It has a far greater meaning than just preserving the harvest of the summer. For Isabella, her mother, Dina, and her daughter, Federica, it is a bonding experience that brings together three generations. How many years have you been making sauce all together?

Isabella: Eh, well —

Dina: All my life.

Isabella: Me personally, all my life, I remember when I was a kid.

Claudia: Isabella and her family planted 80 plants of tomatoes this year. From them, they have harvested about 200 kilos of tomatoes. After seeding in the spring, tomato plants need two or three months to mature, depending on weather conditions. This is their third harvest of the summer. Is it the color that helps you understand that you can harvest it?

Isabella: The riper — so, the redder and the riper, the sweeter the tomato becomes.

Claudia: Are they all the same variety?

Isabella: No, we have three varieties. We have the Tranese tomato, the San Marzano tomato, which is this one, and the cherry. Over there we also have the Regina tomato.

Claudia: So, you have —

Isabella: A fourth variety. Yes, we have all varieties.

Claudia: Do they grow all together in harmony?

Isabella: Yes, they grow all together. They only need a lot of sun and a lot of water.

Claudia: But the ideal tomato variety to make sauce is San Marzano, right? Because it doesn't have seeds.

Isabella: San Marzano and Tranese.

Claudia: The Tranese as well. So these are the tomatoes that we're going to make sauce with today?

Isabella: Yes. They were picked two days ago.

Claudia: Two days ago?

Isabella: Yes, we need to wait a bit because the tomato has to decant. It becomes even riper and sweeter. You keep it in the shade.

Claudia: Ah, it basically has to rest.

Isabella: Yes, it has to rest for two, three days, yes. Now we're going to take them, and then we're going to boil them.

Claudia: Do you need a hand?

Isabella: OK.

Claudia: Ah, so here there are many varieties.

Isabella: Yes.

Claudia: There's San Marzano.

Isabella: There are San Marzano, cherry, and Regina.

Claudia: Ah, look, this is a Tranese because it has a tip.

Isabella: Yes, yes.

Claudia: I'm becoming a tomato expert.

Isabella: Of course.

Claudia: But you don't differentiate them? You make the sauce with all of them?

Isabella: Yes, we mix them, and it is even tastier.

Claudia: With the Regina too?

Isabella: Yes, yes.

Claudia: But aren't Regina for salads?

Isabella: Here, a Regina.

Claudia: Those are my favorites.

Isabella: OK.

Claudia: Let's go.

Isabella: Let's go.

Claudia: All together, the tomatoes are then boiled over a fire in this big pot.

Isabella: This big pot is from 50 years ago.

Claudia: 50 years ago?

Isabella: Yes, yes.

Claudia: Do they still make them like this?

Isabella: Well, honestly I don't know. This was my grandfather's, anyway. My grandad's.

Claudia: Look, but here there's not a lot of water. How are the tomatoes going to boil?

Isabella: Because now I'm going to put the lid on the pot and the tomato is going to release its water.

Claudia: Ah, OK.

Isabella: So it cooks in its own water, so it's tastier.

Claudia: How long does it take?

Isabella: Five minutes.

Claudia: Five minutes? Isabella: Yes, yes.

Claudia: So it's a quick thing.

Isabella: Yes.

Claudia: OK, let's go. So, are they ready now?

Isabella: Yes.

Claudia: Let's see. Wow!

Isabella: As you can see —

Claudia: There's much more water.

Isabella: It boils. There's much more water because the tomato released its own water. So, now the tomato is ready to be drained. Now my daughter is going to help me.

Claudia: So you pass down the tradition from generation to generation.

Isabella: Are you getting burned?

Claudia: Is this your first time?

Federica: No, I did my first sauce when I was 8, more or less. My task, which we'll see later, was to put basil in the bottles.

Claudia: Ah, OK.

Federica: And to turn the crank of the machine to sieve the sauce.

Claudia: Have they given you a promotion now, or you're still doing that?

Federica: This is the first time I help with the draining.

Claudia: Oh, see.

Federica: Yes.

Claudia: Today is a special day. Let's go, let's go.

Isabella: Go over there. This is the container to collect the tomato sauce. It's a typical container from Corato, ancient. In dialect it's called "u candariedde."

Claudia: Couldn't you use any other container?

Isabella: No, because this is of a particular material that doesn't alter the flavor of the sauce.

Claudia: Ah. What material is it of?

Isabella: It's terra-cotta.

Claudia: This is also your family's.

Isabella: Yes. This is at least 60.

Claudia: OK. So this is even older compared to the other one.

Isabella: Even older, yes. OK.

Claudia: Once drained, the tomatoes are placed in this strainer, which will separate the pulp from the skin and the seeds. [machine whirring] It looks like Federica's task got another upgrade, and she's now in charge of pushing the tomatoes in the machine, while Nonna Dina supervises.

Isabella: See how much has filled.

Dina: It filled so much. No, no. Don't put them. Otherwise it won't sieve.

Isabella: Last, you do this way. OK. Now we're going to salt it.

Claudia: Why have you added a piece of tomato skin at the end?

Isabella: To make sure all the tomato inside the machine comes out.

Claudia: Otherwise it doesn't come out.

Isabella: Otherwise not all of it comes out.

Claudia: It needs a push.

Isabella: Yes. Then we also add a bit of sugar to remove acidity from the tomato. A teaspoon of sugar.

Dina: Let's check the salt. See, with so few tomatoes, see how much sauce.

Claudia: Beautiful. How much is this? How many kilos are these?

Dina: These were 13 kilos of tomatoes.

Claudia: 13 kilos.

Isabella: But see how much sauce.

Dina: See how much sauce.

Claudia: How many jars will we be able to fill up?

Isabella: I think all of the ones we got there.

Claudia: About 10?

Isabella: Yes.

Claudia: The family uses any kind of container they can find in their pantry, from old honey jars to Coke bottles. Before being filled with the tomato sauce, they are filled with the best possible basil leaves Federica can pick from the garden. This is to add flavor to the sauce. One leaf only?

Federica: Yes, because you'd feel it too much and so the flavor of the sauce would be covered. So we only put one leaf.

Claudia: Per jar.

Federica: Per jar. So we take off the stalk and put a whole leaf.

Claudia: So this is your task? Putting in the basil.

Federica: Yes, this has been my task ever since I was a little kid.

Claudia: As a kid.

Federica: Yes.

Claudia: So you selected the best basil leaves. You're used to it by now.

Federica: I selected the best leaves, I washed them, I rang them out. So it was my task. These jars have this lid that we can close manually. Whereas these bottles need a more particular tool.

Claudia: Which would be this one.

Federica: Which would be this one here. It's called bottle capper. It doesn't have a particular name.

Claudia: A scientific name.

Federica: But —

Claudia: A name in dialect, no?

Federica: Mh, "u tappe bouttigghie."

Claudia: All right.

Federica: However, it's a very ancient tool. It was my great-granddad's, and we've been using it for over 50 years to make sauce. You put a cap of a can, and you place it below. There's a sort of magnet that takes it.

Claudia: The freshly prepared sauce is then scooped into the jars. So, how many years have you been making sauce all together?

Isabella: Eh, well —

Dina: All my life.

Isabella: Me personally, all my life, I remember when I was a kid.

Claudia: Always within the family?

Isabella: Yes, yes.

Claudia: What about you, madame, for how long? Ever since you were a kid as well?

Dina: I'm 81.

Claudia: So for 81 years.

Dina: Before, we used to work more. We used to sieve it by hand.

Claudia: By hand.

Dina: We would sieve it in the suitable vessel. I'll show you now, we kept the top as souvenir. We used to sieve by hand.

Claudia: By hand?

Dina: By hand.

Claudia: Whereas now you use the machine.

Dina: The machine was released later.

Claudia: So this is already a more modern way.

Dina: Yes, yes. Dina: We would still make hundreds, all sieved by hand, so much that our fingers would break.

Claudia: How long would it take you to do it by hand?

Dina: Ages.

Claudia: A long time.

Dina: Ages.

Claudia: You'd spend entire days.

Dina: Also, the bottles had a cork, and you had to tie it down with string. Me, my task, tying the bottles.

Claudia: Tying the bottles only?

Dina: At the end, because I knew how to tie them.

Isabella: As a kid.

Dina: I was 15, 16 maybe.

Claudia: Then, with the years, you have risen through the ranks.

Dina: Now I got to 81. 81.

Claudia: And the bottle?

Federica: This is the bottle we filled, and now we're going to use the bottle capper.

Claudia: Oh, the moment of truth!

Federica: We already placed the cap underneath for the magnet. Let's place it like so. It has to be straight. Then we push hard. When we hear the tick, it means that the cap has stuck well. Claudia: Oh, here it is. Federica: Now the cap appears on our bottle.

Claudia: Now it's sealed.

Federica: Now it's sealed. We can use any type of cap as long as it's not too damaged, because otherwise it would not stick well to the bottle. And then we put them —

Dina: This is where we used to sieve the sauce.

Claudia: Ah, yes.

Dina: There was a base underneath. You would place this on top, and with your hands….

Claudia: You had to push.

Federica: It used to be all manual.

Claudia: It's pretty small.

Dina: It was this. It's all broken. We only keep it as a souvenir.

Claudia: As a souvenir.

Isabella: Nonna's souvenir.

Claudia: What material is this?

Dina: Aluminum.

Claudia: Aluminum. It's light.

Dina: Aluminum.

Claudia: To make sure they can be preserved for a long time, the jars are given a final boil for 15 minutes. This will also sterilize them.

Isabella: As soon as it boils, it has to spend a quarter of an hour boiling, and then we leave them to cool down until tomorrow.

Claudia: You leave them in the pot with water?

Isabella: In that pot. Yes, yes. With water.

Claudia: So they're not touched?

Isabella: No, they're not touched until they cool off completely. Then they are ready to be preserved. However, the jars have to be surveilled for a week, because they could explode.

Claudia: For a matter of air?

Isabella: Yes.

Claudia: If they haven't really been hermetically sealed.

Isabella: If they haven't been sealed well. Now we cover. This is the sauce we made last week. As you can see, it has already been checked, so there's no water inside.

Claudia: How many did you do this year?

Isabella: Jars? We made more than 100 jars.

Claudia: 100.

Isabella: In total, 220 kilos of tomatoes.

Claudia: For you and the family.

Isabella: We're good for at least a year and a half.

Claudia: Here, you see the basil leaves.

Isabella: Yes, yes.

Claudia: You can still see a bit of the pulp of the tomato.

Isabella: Of course.

Claudia: It's not completely liquid.

Isabella: Of course. No, no.

Claudia: It doesn't have to be liquid?

Isabella: It doesn't have to be liquid, no.

Claudia: It has to be —

Isabella: It has to have a medium consistency, neither too liquid nor too dense.

Claudia: You're lucky. Surely at yours lasagna —

Isabella: After all the work —

Claudia: And pasta with tomato sauce have a completely different taste.

Isabella: So, so good. Great.


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