Salsa, sugo was the name Mum gave to making the sauce. Over the years the name has been refined like the process itself and the official Italian name of passata.
In Calabria the making of the sauce at the end of summer and beginning of autumn involved growing, harvesting, cutting, squeezing, scalding tomatoes, left to hang over night in a large cane basket.
The aim was to drain as much water as possible from the tomatoes. The next day, by hand they were squashed through a flat sieve with small holes and the pulp would fall into a large pot. The sauce cooked over a very gentle heat until all the water evaporated to a thick paste. Further the paste was placed in the sun to dry, before its final resting place, a large clay pot. The sauce was flavoured with basil and salt and also preserved with a coat of olive oil. A thin layer of mould was also considered ideal for securing the rich liquid under its lip. The clay pot with secured lid maintained against pests.
This salsa resembled tomato paste and only as much as a teaspoon used to make a pasta sauce or flavour a meal.
We made salsa often in my youth. The process varied depending on the resources at hand, but adapted to the Australian landscape, over time changed.
The large CUB (Carlton United Brewery) bottles stacked in a corner of the dusty-yard, whenever one was drunk, it was my job to add it to the growing pile. I liked the recent bottles because they were clean and sparkling and quick to wash. Sauce making time saw me tasked with filling a large bucket with hot, soapy water and one by one washing the bottles, inside and out, making sure that all the scum was removed. Some were sauce-laden bottles of yesteryear and the crusty, solidified mould in the bottom was difficult to shake. I dreaded those the most, they frustrated the cleaning, but no waste was the mantra.
The technique then was to pull together with tiny bare fingers a pile of dirt from the ground and into the ring finger width of the neck, and with a little water, shake it so that the abrasiveness of the sand would scrape the sides of the bottle like roughage to the colon. Another technique was to find a thin long stick from the nearby grapevine, insert to scrape and dislodged the detritus. It became much easier when we discovered a thin bottlebrush that could fit into the tiny neck, but this was not invented nor discovered in the early days. Then with a hose, connected to the river water system, I rinsed out all the bottles like new again. One day a tiny frog came out of the hose and jumped away to freedom.
There were different techniques for sauce making. All of them involved heat, water and finding yourself covered in tomato juice so that at the end of the day you had to have a shower to get all of the crusty crush out of your skin and hair. As time passed and jars were easy to buy, the CUB bottles became redundant.
Making passata started with picking the tomatoes, putting them into the wheelbarrow and washing them with the hose. We would then arm ourselves with kitchen knives and large buckets, removing the tomato’s hard eye, slicing down the middle, squeezing and flicking out the seeds, methodically throwing each tomato into a trough ready to be boiled, cooled and crushed in a mincing machine.
I recall a time when the sauce was too watery and Mum would pour it into white repurposed flour bags or an old pillow-case. She would twist the top so as to secure the contents and then push down so that the water would seep out of the cotton pores, like sweat. These bags were hung up on the metal hills-hoist resembling big, round, red, pregnant, swinging bellies. Over the course of the day and possibly the next, the water would drain to a thicker contents. Ladling the sauce out of the sacks with a tea-cup was guaranteed to leave you spotted in saucy stains, and the thick goo poured in through a single, red funnel before securing with the top, seemed to take ages.
We saved the tops of the beer bottles, as they were not twist tops, they were prized off with a hooked bottle opener. We washed them and put them back on gently tapping with a hammer. When we discovered that you could buy new ones, we upgraded to a bottle top machine and brand new gold bottle tops. These made the final product look shiny, new and proudly professional.
The bottles were then placed in a large pot on the stove with water half way up the sides and cooked for what seemed like half the day. Sometimes a large caldron on coals enabled large batches to be processed, it depended on the number of bottles we made and whether it was total fire ban. These were ideal vessels because the glass could withstand great heat in the boiling. Sometimes a bottle would burst and the sauce wasted with fractured glass. They were left to cool before safely removed for storage in the pantry which we called the fridge-room. We had enough sauce to last for one year.
In Australia sauce making fell in March. Some people still follow the passata tradition. But it’s much cheaper and easier to buy from the supermarkets, therefore effortless!
There is so much possibility in the communal making of food for social connection, contribution and longevity of making preserves to mitigate waste. When we think of making sauce in Australia, it is often as an Italian cultural practice, but it’s the Australian adaptation that also makes it an iconic cultural attribute and a symbol of the passage of migration that was and continues to shape our Australian way of life. The passata tradition is also synonymous with the Australian value of sustainability. In the making of preserves, we also preserve our culture. It’s there in a bottle with a story waiting to be opened.