You say “tomato” and I say “Imma make passata every week for the next month”

I think that being an even mostly self sufficient household in the suburbs is a pretty mean feat to pull off. Some friends of ours two streets away are about 70% self sufficient in fruit and veg on their ordinary-sized domestic Canberra block, but goddamit, it’s a lot of work. Although it’s true that all veg you grow yourself is going to be a lot better than something you can find in the stupormarket, some things massively over-reward you for the effort you put in. That’s what we try to focus on in our own gardening – things that aren’t easy and cheap to get fresh, and that are particularly delicious when grown organically and harvested when perfectly ripe, like globe artichokes, asparagus, berries, etc.

Clockwise from 12 o’clock – Vietnamese mint, Vietnamese Basil, a flower and common mint.

We grow at least 20 varieties of culinary herbs, and at this time of year we eat something from the garden every day. The asparagus has finished long ago, but the eggplants are just flowering, and there’s rhubarb, sorrel, celery, beetroot, Malabar spinach, gherkins to preserve and chillies. Our Jerusalem artichokes have gone completely beserk and are more than 3 metres tall, twice the maximum height given in my new gardening book.

I planted three heritage varieties of summer squash this year to defeat the “omg I fucking hate zucchini” thing that happens when you are insufficiently vigilant.

But the classic big pay-off Summer crop is of course, tomatoes.

I eat a few cherry tomatoes occasionally out of season, and I eat preserved tomatoes year round, but there is a real tomato gorging going on around here at the moment. The kitchen garden crew made bruschetta for the parent information night at my son’s school last week, and I worked out afterwards there were nine varieties of tomato in the mix (on home-made bread, with a little very good olive oil and salt). People went nuts for it, as you can imagine.

Clockwise from top left: Black Russian, golden grape, tommy toe, green zebra, tigerella, an amazing yellow oxheart variety I don’t know the name of and black krim.

This year I’ve been experimenting with different ways to support growing tomato plants, in a quest to find the One True Method of Tomato Supporting. I made one metre round towers of 100 mm square wire 120cm high, but despite my high hopes they turned out to be pissweak and unable to cope with the weight of the ripening fruit. While picking was easy from the middle of the tube up, the bottom had way too much foliage and there was fruit on the ground which meant slaters and fruit flies and the deep sadness that is homegrown heritage breed tomatoes in the chook food.

I’ve also been experimenting with tomato preserving this year, and so far I have a frozen pureed roasted tomato sauce (with beetroot, carrot, bay, butter, red wine and vinegar), one precious cup-sized jar of tomato paste cooked down from a couple of kilos of San Marzano tomatoes I grew from Digger’s seedlings and most excitingly, several jars of passata.

Last year a lovely friend gave me a manual Italian tomato press, and I am in love with it. If you have to look after an end of Summer school holidays glut from a school garden, the “passatutto” considerably speeds things up. Even things like this:

If I were telling someone how to stock their kitchen, I would tell them to get a tomato press and a potato ricer and not to get a food mill. It is so simple a child can use it.

So if anyone who lives in Canberra would like my food mill, leave a comment.

Things got on a roll, as they do, and last Saturday morning my sister’s lovely elderly Italian neighbours invited us around to see how they did their tomatoes and to do some of our own. I’d read a squillion accounts of “passata days” but was still unsure how exactly to go about it. I knew that seeing it done by experts would be really helpful, and Angelo and Jenny were happy for us to join in.

They are completely delightful people, and the mental passata pieces fell into shape as I worked out what to do with the puree to ensure it was safe and would last the family a year. Put the puree into clean (not sterile) dark glass bottles, leaving a substantial air gap and cap them with crown seals (almost all home brewers will have ths equipment, and if you don’t know a brewer it’s all easy and pretty cheap to track down and use). Pack a large stock pot, Vacola boiler or 44 gallon drum with bottles laid sideways (aha! she says! sideways! that was the missing bit of information ! HOW VERY CUNNING!) with towels tucked here and there so the bottles don’t smash or make irritating jiggly-scrape-y noies. Bring it all slowly to the boil, boil for an hour and don’t remove the bottles until everything is completely cool – that might be the next afternooon.

During this period, lucky people will be taken for a burn in a 94 year old Ceirano, one of two of that model remaining in the world, and the only one in working order.

Some more pictures from the day follow, and even more for the very keen here.

The electric machine is very sexy and cool, but they they cost exponentially more than the $40, entirely satisfactory, manual one. The manual one really comes into its own when you’re processing a couple of kilos of tomatoes each week as they become ripe rather than having a crazed tomato frenzy.

What I really noticed, apart from the smell of properly ripe tomatoes and the extreme comfiness of the backseat of a WW1 era touring car, is that there is a kind of learning that no amount of book-learnin’ will get you. You have to watch, and talk, and muck in and ask questions and then you’ll start to work out what’s going on.

31 thoughts on “You say “tomato” and I say “Imma make passata every week for the next month”

  1. The machine is orsm! Leave a comment if you want it back. 😉

    I think we’ve got a couple more weeks ahead of us of tomatoes as well. Up to about 6kg harvested so far, and still probably that much left on the vines.


  2. I want it back! Happy to share over the summer though, as it seems silly for us all to have one. Will be doing a big tomato mob day, ordering in a few boxes of romas.

  3. Was too tired to plant toms (or indeed much) this year with movin’ ‘n all that, but next year, that’ll be me – yippe!

    Noting the sideways thing-y, thank you.

  4. I saw an abandoned metal-legged stool without its seat on the nature strip yesterday and thought it might make a good frame for climby plants. It’d be very stable. Big enough for tomatoes? Perhaps not, but…

  5. Love it, Miz Zoe. What an impressive harvest you have! We’re still struggling with the best support options for tomatoes as well, though this year’s big curve of latticed re-bar has been doing quite a good job. I’ve still never done a proper passata – I just make sugos really, generally roasted. You’ve inspired me though, and I can’t wait to have space for moar tomatoes on the farm next year! You can come and help and show me, ‘cos you’re right, learning directly from others is best. 🙂

  6. So is passata uncooked and a sugo a cooked sauce? My tomatoes are a couple of weeks off ripening I reckon and I am glad that others struggle with the support structure. The canes I bought are woefully inadequate.

  7. Yes, I’m with Curious; So Passata is uncooked, or rather cooked in the bottle and sugo is pre cooked? I guess then I make sugo. I’ve just got started with our new balcony garden and our tomato seedlings have started to fruit, and we are so ridiculously excited! Boyfriend wants to get more plants but I figure we gotta wait and see how they go first, especially due to our limited space.

  8. Great to have passata parties demystified. My tomatoes have been most disappointing in Melbourne this year. After all those years of drought we’ve had too much rain. Plants all leggy and floppy, not making a good canopy to protect the fruit from sun damage. No locusts yet though! For people like me with who have only a few plants and limited gluts, I dry roast my tomatoes (any kind), often with a head of garlic. Then either force them through a sieve for a tomato concentrate or slip the skins off and squeeze out the pulp, then whizz them with the hand blender. Rather than bottling I freeze in small batches. A “cheats passata” but dead easy.

  9. dogpossum, you just need to get a “determinate” tomato – which grows to a mature size and stops, not an “indeterminate” one like the one presently halfway up the bay tree it’s next to 🙂

    And on defintions, the Oxford Companion to Italian Food lists these:

    doppio concentrato – paste
    passata – strained and pasteurised juice
    polpa – deseeded and chopped pulp
    pomodori pelati – whole peeled tomatoes

    but doesn’t have sugo in the index or the tomato entry. Sugo translates as for juice/sauce/essence, so doesn’t necessarily imply cooking. Didn’t that help 😉

  10. I would have thought the beer bottle necks would have been too narrow to get the sauce out. What would you compare the finished article to, consistency-wise?

  11. I am TOTES inspired. I only got m’self access to some soil in late November, and the first thing I did was sow a buncha tomato seeds. Melburnian tomatists in the know say that you should sow around Grand Final time, so this was far too late in the season, but I was as keen as the proverbial biofumigant, so too-late, schmoo-late. With a wet cool summer and a serious pollinating-insect deficiency (I had to resort to pleasuring the flowers with paintbrushes), we’ve only just (in the last month) seen fruit starting to set. There’s heaps of it, but it’s all as green as those zebras you’ve got there. This post makes me want to rush outside and start crooning to them until they ripen themselves up.

  12. I know a certain person in my household who would *love* your food mill, since he’s been looking for one just like it for ages.

    there is a kind of learning that no amount of book-learnin’ will get you

    Absolutely. That’s the cornerstone of my art practice. I can’t wait for the populace to work that one out, if it’s not too late.

  13. “Melburnian tomatists in the know say that you should sow around Grand Final time”


    I put in one lot mid-October, which are still producing like nobody’s business.

    Self sown ones from last year have been popping up every so often ever since, and where they have space I’ve let them live too, and given them something to climb.

    The problems have only been too much water and a crazy onslaught of pests – caterpillars, fruit fly mostly, working in tandem, helped still more by the over-watered splitting.

    But in the end, I’ve been semi-glad of the lowered yield. In January I was picking maybe a kilo per day from eight plants (not counting cherries and principe borghesi). I’ll allocate less space to tomatoes next time!

    Getting together with mates for the annual 100+ kilo passata-fest with romas from preston market and a machina. We were going to get a sturdy manual one and hook it up to a bike chain drive, but that project has spent too long on the backburner now I think.

    It’d be a hell of a thing for some hipster/hippy bike tamperer to bring to market though.

  14. Helen it’s thin, not like a pureed tomato sauce with skins left in, much thinner than that, and no chunks. Beer bottles are good because they keep the light out.

    Alexis – trial and error is a great way to learn gardening, it’s worked for me!

    And I should note after a mention on twitter about the abundance that we used purchased Romas on Saturday. I’ll have plenty of San Marzanos soon, but they’re not ready yet and I want more passata than my own garden will provide.

    FDB, these kind of machines are ideally owned in a co-operative way, no need for everyone to have one.

  15. Oh so cool. I must buy up big this weekend and preserve some tomatoes. Maybe I could swap you: a loan of our dehydrator for a loan of your whizbang tomato puréeing thingy?

  16. “FDB, these kind of machines are ideally owned in a co-operative way, no need for everyone to have one.”

    Oh for sure. There are a few spots in Melbourne where you can hire them too. And in fact, I have a friend who makes bamboo bicycles who’ll be one of the ten or fifteen getting together on Sunday, so I might bend his ear about a prototype chain-drive pedal-powered tomato-bot. I will call it the Passatron 3000.

  17. Zoe this is so insipiring and so depressing – I live in inner Sydney so if I can ever afford a garden, those’ll be some darn expensive tomatoes!! But oh a girl can dream of Canberran space…

    My mum recently bought me a Woman’s Weekly preserving and pickling book. I am now inspired to buy the cheap bulk boxes at the Ashfield fruit markets and have a go.

    Preserving is the new frontier.

  18. Soon my neighbour will light a fire in his back yard and I will know that it is time “to make-a da tomato sauce”. And I will hover down the bottom of the yard and he will pass me two stubbies of the precious stuff that he has withheld from his children and grandchildren and I will save them for a special occasion. It’s near impossible to grow that many tomatoes in Katoomba, so my neighbour goes to Flemington at dawn on the weekend he make-a da tomato sauce. Either way, it’s good.

  19. All this talk of European neighbours and their bottling expertise reminds me of a post I wrote on my blog about Serbian zimnice (winter preserves). Pickling and bottling are alive and well in the Former Yugoslavia 🙂

    Zoe – I hope it’s OK if it put the link in, sincere apologies if that is bad net-etiquette!

  20. Okay, so me and me mates had our passata day.

    It was eerily successful, and fucking delicious. 120kg of tomatoes, done and dusted and bottled in about 6 hours. Plus another 20kg box made into a pretty great re-working of my now-signature chutney. We put paid to a couple of slabs too, but otherwise it was good wholesome healthy fun.

  21. That 94 year old Ceirano looks very interesting. Shame you cluttered up the rest of the post with all that irrelevent stuff about tomatoes.

  22. Question – we eat a lot of dill pickles and cornichons in our house. At least a jar a week and the nice ones aren’t super cheap. Is it worth my while seeking out pickling cucumbers and pickling them myself?

    I have the time, but is it even possible in Sydney?

    Advice appreciated. Ta

  23. Can I just say, that as an Italian girl living in Melbourne, who annually makes pasta sauce from scratch with her Nonni, it is soooo great to see someone else giving it a try! It is quite a process, but completely worth it in the end to get that sweet, delicious passata. It’s now affectionately known by the Gen-Yers of our family as “National Wog Day,” and we all love it 🙂 Congratulations on your passata, I hope it brings back many happy memories every time you cook with it!

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