Tomato Passata Day – Once a Week!

The idealised version of Tomato Day (tomato passata or purée making day) generally occurs in Melbourne some time between mid February and early March. In recent years it has become a staged event, promoted by celebrities who may or may not have Italian heritage, and who may have dubious reasons for popularising it, or by farmers markets and community groups with more noble motives. Traditionally, the day has been heralded by large hand painted signs along the arterial roads of the less fashionable suburbs of Melbourne, often in front of abandoned warehouses or petrol stations. The signs read:

              Pomodori per Salsa or Si Vende Pomodori e Uva 

or ‘tomatoes for sauce or tomatoes and grapes sold here’. Large boxes of tomatoes, usually sourced from commercial tomato farms, arrive at these places in late summer. Perhaps we could call them tomato pop up shops? Gli Italo- Australiani have always bought tomatoes in 20 kilo boxes for their annual passata or tomato puree making day but as Melbourne’s Italian born demographic ages and slowly dies out, the tradition now relies on the younger generation and others interested in home preserving.

Passata Day - again.
Passata Day – once a week!

This event came sharply into focus for many young Australians, especially those of Italian heritage, with the release of the film Looking for Alibrandi, one of my favourite Australian movies, which won the Australian Film Institute award for the best film in 2000. Following its success, the book on which the film is based, by Melina Marchetti, was studied in English in most schools, and the film was included in the year 12 Italian optional study on Emigrazione Italiana in Australia. Check out the opening scene from the movie:

If only I could have a tomato day once every summer. When you grow your own tomatoes, the crops will decide when, and how often, you make passata di pomodori.  Roma tomatoes or other varieties of plum tomatoes, like San Marzano, are the preferred tomatoes for bottling (canning) as they have thick skin, few seeds and can safely sit around on benches, developing more intensity of colour and flavour, for at least a week. When I get around 5 kilo of deep red coloured tomatoes, usually once a week during January and February, it’s Passata Day again!

Tomatoes, slit, covered in boiling water.
Tomatoes covered in boiling water for less than a minute.

The tomato passata recipe should be kept simple. I use only tomatoes and a basil leaf. It is not a recipe as such, but a method. Gather all your equipment before hand and seduce a friend into helping.

Dry the tomatoes on a tea towel so they lose the water from their hot bath.

For pureeing the tomatoes, I use a hand cranked mouli with the finest attachment. It’s hard work turning that handle! I am dreaming of a small, electric version and am putting in an early request so that Father Christmas or La Befana or someone impersonating either will buy me one next year. In the meantime, very good results can be obtained with a mouli.

The extracted puree and mouli in action.

The Method and Equipment.

  • tomatoes (I usually process between 3 and 5 kilo at a time)
  • fresh basil leaves
  • passata jars and lids, sterilised
  • mouli
  • some large bowls
  • a jug
  • tea towels- to drain the wet tomatoes and to place under the bowl and mouli to stabilise.

Gather your tomatoes and wash them. Cut a cross in the skin with a sharp knife (it helps loosen the skin) and remove any stalks. Boil up kettles of water, add the tomatoes to a large bowl and cover with boiling water for 1 minute or less, then scoop them out of their bath and dry on a tea towel. You may need to do this step in batches, so have more boiling water ready to add to your bowl and tomatoes.

After draining, cut them in half and put them in a mouli with a disc on the finest setting and puree, which removes all the skin and seeds. Sit the mouli over a bowl of the same size to catch the puree.

Pour the puree into a jug then pour into sterilised jars. Add a small basil leaf to the jar, and leave a 3 cm gap from the lid.

When all the jars are filled and capped, fill a large preserving pan with water (as tall or taller than the jars or bottles). You may add a folded teatowel to the base of the pan to stop the bottles rattling around- I usually don’t bother with this. Add the jars to the cold water, bring to the boil, boil for 30 minutes, then leave in the water bath for a day. You may hear the caps pop indicating a good seal.

Five bottles of passata from 3.5 kilos of tomaties
Five bottles of passata from 3.5 kilo of tomatoes

Store in a cool dark place for up to 3 years but they probably won’t last that long. Add to pasta sauces, casseroles, and soups during winter.

First Batch- 3 1/2 kilo gave 5 bottles.

Used tomato passata bottles can be found in op shops (thrift stores) or can be purchased new. In the past, tomato passata was made and cooked in beer bottles but this practice is slowly dying out too. New lids are also sold in many Italian kitchen ware shops in packets of 20.

spare lids can be purchased.
spare lids can be purchased.

Good links on this theme:

Do you make Tomato Passata for the year? Did you learn this from your Nonna or Nonno? And have you seen the film Looking for Alibrandi?

29 thoughts on “Tomato Passata Day – Once a Week!”

  1. I can remember helping my (not Italian) mother and grandmother preserve tomatoes when I was a girl. My grandparents had the garden and we all pitched in on ‘canning day’. They were so delicious all winter long. Of course we never get enough inexpensive tomatoes here in Alice to make it worthwhile, and anyway, the heat is such that I probably would lose all enthusiasm for it. I remember our daughter and I watching Looking for Alibrandi together when the movie came out. We both enjoyed it. Thanks Francesca.

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    1. It is a great movie- such good themes for teenagers and older seenagers like me.
      We used to preserve tomatoes in jars- the old way with Fowlers Vacola jars- and they swam around in watery stuff and were not so appealing. I must say the Italian passata approach is a lot simpler.
      We have had a cool week, allowing me to do this stuff and cook lots of plum things too. I can’t believe it- we are getting more rain this week- loving it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Approximately 2 years ago I wrote a post about making passata, and I put a link to Looking for Alibrani. Snap! I love that opening scene……and homemade passata. I adore tomatoes, much more than chocolate! Glad you’re getting some rain, it heavy with expectation here but nothing happening

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  3. Love it. Lots of memories of tomato day when I was growing up, and yes we did have an electric machine. The tomatoes would go into huge tubs of water, a few of us would do the scoring and chop off the top before being handed over for pureeing. Salami day was big too, I have a photo from when I was five or so wielding a giant meat cleaver!

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  4. I used to be envious when my Italian friend in Melbourne talked about his family passata making day – the whole family would rock up at nonna’s. Such a lovely tradition I’m glad it’s still taking place even though the hairy hipsters are getting involved these days!

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  5. Good evening Francesca. I have made passata a few times, it just depends on the success of my tomato crop. I still use big beer bottles, my husband finds the task of emptying the bottles very arduous but he persists (actually he needs no encouragement!) I agree, the method should be kept simple. I have a great hand cranked machine called a passata master which I bought from a Greek wholesaler in Adelaide years ago. Unfortunately, with a name like Smith, I didn’t learn from my Nonna, just from reading! Your passata looks perfect.

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    1. Mine is also learnt from reading as my Italianita` is acquired. That passata master sounds like a beauty. We used to save up all our beer bottles for home brew as well as passata but some of the drinking habits have changed around here- not less, just different shapes and vintages you could say. So now I’m using the passata bottles. The crop is a winner this year.

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  6. I loved that film, Mum used to do a lot of preserving and sauce making. She used to make her own hippy version of tomato sauce, sigh, if only I had been more appreciative! Your tomatoes and passata look the bomb!

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    1. Glad you saw and enjoyed that film Lisa. I love your hippy Mum- maybe we made it the same way. I used to make it with garlic and oil, then put it in little tubs in the freezer. The hippy kids could just defrost one and make Spaghetti Napoli any old time. The passata in bottles means another step- it will need to be flavoured when used.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, you went to a real one Lorraine. I remember your post on it- and yes, its hard work, but even harder doing it every week with all these tomatoes flushing.
      There are a few ‘show’ tomato days around the traps though.

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  7. I think this would be my favourite foodie thing of all. Never seen the movie, will try and find it, the trailer looks good. I think I was motivated to make passata from one of the very early SBS Food safari episodes, I actually had to buy a jar this week, first time in many, many years. I use mostly 500ml cider bottles and normal stubbies (because I don’t mind giving them away without needing bottles returned or for taking camping) and I don’t add anything because it can then be used in a wide variety of cuisines. I borrowed an electric processor a couple of seasons ago and didn’t think the extra hassle was worth it. Extra big batch coming up this year!

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    1. I think you will like the film Maree, promotted as a teen flick, I think it has far more general appeal. Try the library.
      Great idea usind stubbies. Good size too,no waste. Do uou have a capping gadget? We used to have one BTF…before the fire…should I add another F to that acronym? one of the things yet to replace. Might do so as stubbies of passata sound perfetto. Sounds like the little electric machine isn’t worth lusting after.
      When are we going to Costante’s? I can hold your hand through Preston.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Giggle inwardly about BTFF! Good idea about the library, just placed a hold. Yes I have a bench top capping machine, I lashed out a few years ago (only about $50.00ish from memory) and it has made life very easy. Caps for stubbies are so much cheaper than jar lids too. Like the sound of Costante’s, have to get a few big events out of the way first though. Stuff like trying to buy something to wear to son’s wedding, I hate clothes shopping and it hates me so it may take a few weekends 🙂

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  8. Good tradition don’t have borders, that is certain! I find the “pomarola” moment a very magic event for families, a good occasion of get together, despite the hard work behind it! Lovely post!

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  9. Does this post ever bring to mind some memories! One day in late summer, Mom and Zia would get to work with their tomatoes. We kids learned very early to stay out of the way. I still vividly remember seeing the quart jars lined up on the shelves in the cellar., “cantina”. Thanks for the tutorial and trip down memory lane.

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  10. I’ve always wanted to gatecrash an Italian family’s passata day, an obsession piqued when I read (and then watched) Looking for Alibrandi!

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