Lou is Italian-Croatian and has been talking about Tomato Day for a couple of months now, with excitement and trepidation. “What is it?” I asked. “It’s the day we make sugo,” says Lou.
Sugo is a rich, slow-cooked Italian sauce with a tomato base and then whichever additional vegetables, herbs, spices and sale (salt) the family feels most appropriate. This is different to passata which is a straight tomato puree, also used as a base and sauce in many Italian dishes. You can use sugo as is to make a sauce or boil it down into a paste for pizzas.
Making sugo is a family or community affair and can take all day depending on how many people are involved and expect to receive bottles of sugo in the end. It is a relatively simple process but requires plenty of labour, space, some large pans, bottles, a few pieces of machinery such as a juicer and bottle capper, and plenty of tomatoes.
Boxes of tomatoes are delivered by the grocer on Tomato Day, which has been selected based on a guess at how ripe the tomatoes will be that season at that time, and preferably on a weekend when everyone can pitch in a hand. “You don’t add sugar. If you need sugar, it means they [those who might add sugar] haven’t let the tomatoes ripen enough before making sugo,” Lou chides.
The tomatoes are first washed to remove any additional dirt and pesticides. Loretta (Lou’s mother) does this in the bathtub as a result of the large number of tomatoes. Unfortunately I arrived late and missed the opportunity to shoot this.
Tomatoes are then de-stemmed, checked for bruising and mould which is cut away, and then quartered. Quartered tomatoes are then cooked over a light rolling boil, where the skins are softened making the tomatoes easier to sauce later. These combined stages are perhaps the hardest and require sharp knives, deft fingers, and a bit of banter to accomplish.
When all the tomatoes have been cut and cooked, a variety of additional vegetables and herbs (fresh from the garden of course) are chopped up chunky then added to the pots of cooked tomato. “Are these too thick?” Lou asks of Nonna Serafina. “Eh, oh no, no, no. It’s ok,” responds Nonna, “we press, it’s ok.”
The buckets of tomato and additional flavours are then processed through a large juicing machine to separate the juice from the vegetable pulp in two separate buckets. This proves a little messy and looks like a murder scene given the crude but functional arrangement of the juicer. “When Nonno [Giuseppe] got it I wasn’t allowed to touch it or I’d be yelled at,” says Lou. “You couldn’t look at it,” laughs Loretta, “it was Nonno’s.”
Nonno Giuseppe was the sugo master in the Fighera family until he passed away, at which time Lou, Nonno’s right-hand man, inherited the job. “I was anxious because I knew he’d yell at me for something that was out of my control, but that was the way,” says Lou.
“You didn’t get shown, he just did and you watched. But that’s how wogs do it, you just do until you learn,” confirms Loretta.
Now, Lou manages the day without too much stress, though she wears a critical look masking fierce determination throughout the process.
Once the juice is separated from pulp it’s time for the “gross bit” when the tomato juice is strained through cloth. “We use clean pillow cases, but it looks like you’re milking a bloody tit,” Lou says. The bright red juice is poured into a pastel green bag and strung up by the rafters then milked by hand into a bucket producing a thicker sugo paste. And it does look gross.
With the juice and sugo separated, Lou and Loretta debate the consistency of the sugo and add a touch of the juice back to the thicker mixture until it’s pourable. The final sugo mixture is poured into bottles and capped before being boiled in a large drum for preservation.
Hopefully the few tomatoes I chopped have earned me a bottle or two of sugo for my pasta sauce.