His name is Tonino. He has two bicycles in his garage: one he’s ready to lend you with a moment’s notice, and one he says is “personal” and hangs on the wall. You know it’s that second bike which holds his memories. He used to ride 100km a day, but now he doesn’t ride as much as he used to after several of his bicyclist friends were killed by cars.
He’s getting to the age when friends die, and he may even think about death daily, but that they died senselessly while doing something they love is a hard pill to swallow and has considerably reduced the enjoyment which he got from those rides. He has now upgraded to three wheels – a 3-wheeled Piaggio Ape which has just enough horsepower to get him to and from the plot of farmland a few kilometers away from his house in Puglia.
He loads up the back of the Ape with fresh-picked tomatoes off the vine, almonds in their shells, and in a few weeks, olives. After their bumpy journey back home, they are stacked at the mouth of his garage so he can sit with the door open, do some work, and chat with neighbors and friends who drop by.
He hangs his beautiful tomatoes on the wall of the garage where they serve him most of the year. Usually they last until mid-to-end of spring, and he’ll periodically clean the rotting tomatoes out from the vines if needed. He can ferret out the rotting ones as lovingly as he can select the juiciest and ripest ones for that night’s pane e pomodoro (bread and tomatoes). But today he’s squeezing the juice and seeds from the best ones to can them and use them later.
He’s joined by his wife, who is helping him de-seed and can those tomatoes. Their expressions are patient and indulgent as they explain the details of what they’re doing.
We are voyeurs of this annual tradition and the necessity of me going to get my camera both flatters and amuses them. They understand that with big city folk, the idea of having a little garden, let alone an entire wall of heaving tomato vines, is so foreign it doesn’t matter that one of us is also American and an actual foreigner. Their life is foreign to us in many ways, even from a few hundred kilometers away.
Luckily, Tonino doesn’t have to explain the value of the why. Why you’d want to spend hours squeezing seeds and liquid out of tomatoes, stuffing them into jars, and then boiling them in a bain-marie to seal them up until they’re pulled off a shelf and opened for a future night’s dinner. He sees we understand this.
He sees the hunger in our eyes and our appreciation for the results, if not the process, of what they’re doing. We spend a few minutes more discussing tomato sauce, the joys of making your own sauce with something that you grew without pesticides, and the peace-of-mind which comes from knowing every inch of the land that your food grows on.
A foreign soundtrack punctuates the discussion – the click of a photographer’s camera, documenting and preserving something** which feels like a mundane task to some, but to others it’s the culmination of patience and delayed gratification which turn this task into an extraordinary undertaking for younger generations.
These are the simple pleasures – the wind rushing past your ears and stinging your eyes while gaining speed downhill and trying not to use the brakes, immersing your arms up to your elbows in seeds and sweet tomato water, and enjoying the wonder in the eyes of a foreigner and the admiration in the reflection of her lens.
Simple Homemade Tomato Sauce Recipe
A very basic tomato sauce that you can use to make any number of sauces and variations. Tonino has a word of advice for you, too. If you can’t can your own tomatoes, at least don’t buy pre-made tomato sauce (passata here in Italy). Buy peeled tomatoes in a can, and make your own. It will be much better and your mouth will thank you!
A note on skinned vs. unskinned tomatoes: If your tomatoes have the skins on them (like the ones in these pictures), you can leave them on and make a “whiter” sauce as the pieces of tomato will stay intact and the sauce won’t be super red (great for fish, for example). If instead you want a true red sauce, you should run the tomatoes through a ricer to remove skins and seeds. You can remove skins yourself with fresh tomatoes: cut an X into them with a knife, and parboil them for a minute or so until they soften. Remove the skin and then seeds. If you have skinned tomatoes (in a can or after removing skins) you can use a hand blender (best done prior to cooking) to bring out more juice.
Olive oil, the best you can find
Garlic, cut into large chunks or crushed with the flat side of a knife
- In a large frying pan, heat up a few tablespoons of olive oil, and add the garlic, being careful not to burn it. Many Italians will not keep the garlic in their final sauce, but use it to flavor the oil, and then remove or leave it and make it easy to avoid/fish out later (that’s why you want those big pieces of garlic instead of mincing or putting it through a press).
- Add the canned tomatoes, stirring to incorporate over a medium flame for a few minutes. The tomatoes will release liquid and it will most likely burn off. You can add more water if desired, depending on the thickness you want of the sauce.
- Cover the pan and turn the flame to low, cooking for approximately 30 minutes. Check on the consistency and make sure it doesn’t get too dry.
- A few minutes before serving, turn the flame off, and add the basil, stirring to mix into the sauce.
- Variation: if you’re making a meat sauce, you’ll want to brown the meat first before adding the tomatoes.
Do you can tomatoes or make your own tomato sauce at home? What do you put in yours?
**Just in case you were wondering, none of the images here were saturated with additional color – they were really that red and beautiful.