You know the end of summer is drawing near when you see a glut of tomatoes on the market at knock-down prices. You’ll also know summer in Malta is nigh when you are woken by the sound of…
Live anywhere in the southern Mediterranean where houses have flat roofs and you’ll know all about waterproofing and the roar of burners sealing the roofing felt with tar. The sound is like a small hot air balloon taking off. Spurts of burning gas followed by a few seconds silence. A week back, on 15th August, the mother of all (literally in the case of St Mary) public holidays and feast days in Malta was the first outing of the burners among my neighbours. Up early to avoid the still searing heat, locals are busy clearing roof debris, unblocking drainpipes and sealing up cracks. Right on cue, Santa Marija, notorious for heralding a change in the weather, saw some towering clouds sidle by over the horizon. No rain yet, but any day now Malta can expect not just any old rain but a massive deluge and flash floods that see water spout out of manholes. The valley between my village and next is a particularly notorious danger spot that has taken lives in the past. EU funds are helping build flood relief systems there. Malta is an all or nothing place; drought or flood. Drizzle isn’t in the vocabulary here.
After the rain come bluer skies, cleaner air, though often worse humidity and battered tomatoes. Which is why farmers are busy gathering in as much of the tomato crop as possible and selling it off cheaply. It’s my cue this year to make the most of the glut, preserving while they’re as low as 50c a kilo (cherry tomatoes can be three times as much though so plain regular plums will do for preserves). I’ve been meaning to do this for many seasons but end up not mustering the energy in the heat to batch bottle tomatoes as sauce, chutney, peeled toms, or whatever. Humidity put paid to making sun-dried tomatoes with much success.
Many summers ago when I au paired in Abruzzo-Molise in Italy, I was roped into helping the nonna and great aunts bottle tomatoes. We spent three days bottling. I just couldn’t see the point then, aged 22, when supermarket cans of toms are so ridiculously cheap. Now, I yearn to make homemade preserves, perhaps for the nostalgia of childhood and as a way of clinging on to some connection with food at its source. Living in the southern Mediterranean, it would be a crime not to use fresh tomatoes whose flavour and colour outstrip any factory bottled or canned ones.
My father is past master of preserving and I admired his bottled tomatoes last autumn; sealed, neatly labeled and ready to use all winter long in casseroles and soups. If he can make batches of preserves (at his age), then surely I can manage a little tomato passata, aka ketchup, myself? Dad grew up in wartime on kitchen garden crops made into economical preserves to live of in lean winter months. His Seville marmalade is a wonder to behold and something I think I’ve come close to equaling.
Now though, with autumn on the calender if not in the air as a Maltese summer lasts til end October or later, I am dusting off the preserving pan ready to make batch two of this deep, rich, slightly spicy, full-on tomato sauce. Mine is of a mid-thick consistency which I can swirl on pizza bases, use a dipping sauce and it’s firm enough to be a ketchup too. When it comes to spices and herbs, I put fennel seed and mace, along with a dose of Balsamic vinegar, but feel free to experiment – cumin, coriander, chopped fresh basil, rosemary et al do nicely. I’ll be adding basil to the next lot and using a different vinegar too. Quantities are approximate. Taste as you go along and simply cook down to the thickness you require.
I do think making homemade passata is worth the effort once a year. It’s the only way my son eats tomatoes too and despite the spice and fennel in it, he said it was as good as bought! Praise indeed from a man who won’t eat fresh tomatoes and who can sniff out fennel at a 1mm squared taste. Why the fennel? It’s in abundance now, forming hedgerows along most of the country lanes. My car gets scratched up by woody, wild stems flopping kerbside. It’s a natural flavour ally of the tomato, I think. But leave it out or add a woody herb that’s going to seed where you live.
All images © Liz Ayling 2013
- 3kg fresh tomatoes (ideally plum)
- 400gm red onions
- 4 plump garlic cloves
- 3 red or orange bell peppers (or one large red pepper)
- 3 tbsps light muscovado sugar
- 3 tsp salt
- freshly-milled black pepper
- 1 level tbsp ground mace
- 1 level tbsp crushed fennel seeds
- 200ml red wine vinegar (use other vinegars to replace both the red and balsamic if you like)
- 50ml balsamic vinegar
- Chop the tomatoes into rough cubes, dice up peppers (de-seeded), and peel and dice onions and garlic and place all the vegetables in a large, deep-sided, wide, thick-based saucepan with a lid.
- Heat and cook for around 15 minutes, lid on, over a medium heat until the tomatoes are partly cooked down and the onion starts to soften.
- Add all the other ingredients, bring the mixture to nearly boiling point then reduce the heat and simmer gently for around an hour, stirring occasionally to ensure it doesn’t stick. Check for liquid and if you see the mixture drying out too much add a little water.
- Turn off the heat, remove lid and leave to cool for around 15 minutes. Then, in batches, blitz the tomato mixture up in a blender / liquidiser.
- At this point, the sauce is very fine but to remove lingering tomato seeds and skin sieve through a fine sieve or mouli up.
- Return the sauce to a cleaned pan and reduce over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, keeping the lid off, until the sauce is reduced to your desired consistency. Around 10-15 mins for a medium-thick sauce.
- When ready, pour into sterilised jars and seal immediately. Tighten lids after half an hour when the sauce cools down. The lids usually dimple in when the seal is formed.