La Salsa

Bottled Tomato Sauce

Preparation info

    • Difficulty


Appears in

Honey from a Weed

By Patience Gray

Published 1986

  • About


The sauce that many Apulian householders prepare for winter is made on a large scale, involving the whole family and at least a hundred kilos of Leccesi tomatoes grown for this purpose, but often far more.

In the first weeks of July the ripening tomatoes are picked at dawn with their short stems, then laid out in a covered space to ripen further (in a garage, spare room, or wine-making place, il palmento). During this time bottles, elegant old liqueur bottles or mineral water bottles, are assembled, washed, laid upside down to drain in the hottest sun. Cauldrons are scoured, glazed earthenware vats are washed and turned upside down, firewood (olive) is prepared, corks or metal caps lined up, the tomato machine examined, herbs gathered, packets of sea salt acquired.

One day at 6 in the morning, the operation begins. While the man of the house prepares the outdoor fires and sets the iron tripods, the women, crouching over a deep scarlet sea of tomatoes on the floor, at speed remove the stalks and carry basins of fruit to the now filled vat, pouring them in, then lightly squeezing the tomatoes under water to release some of the seeds and some of their acid, and rapidly fill the cauldrons. Into each cauldron half a purple onion is sliced up, some sprigs of thyme and rosemary are added and a handful of salt, together with a cup of water. The man then bears the cauldrons away and sets them on the fires, putting on their lids. While the contents of the cauldrons cook, every domestic vessel is being filled with more slightly crushed tomatoes, taken from the water vat. The cauldrons are stirred from time to time and, once they come to the boil, cook (10 minutes) till the contents acquire a deeper colour and are soft.

Near the fire is a large tin bath with over it a beautiful circular rush mat, a kind of sieve. The man, protecting his hands with rags, pours the contents of the first cauldron onto the rush mat. The juice runs through and a dense tomato mush remains. The mush is carefully poured into another earthenware crock, placed on a table, to which the tomato separating machine has been affixed, under a tree. By now, it is 8 o’clock and already hot.

Someone starts putting the tomatoes into the top of the machine with a cup and someone else winds the handle and prods. The seeds and skins spill out onto a plate on one side, and the sauce pours into an earthenware vessel on the other. Meanwhile ever new cauldrons are being boiled up.

Some of the liquor of the last cauldron can be added if the sauce is too thick. The aim is to get a sauce which is very dense, but not so dense that once in the bottle it will refuse to come out. By this time everyone is covered with tomato juice and their hands which have been yellow turn black, the effect of the acid.

In the end there is a huge vat of dense sauce on the one hand, and a mountain of skins and seeds on the other. The seeds released into the water vat are removed with a fine sieve and dried in the sun against next year’s planting, when they will be sown on heat in February covered with plastic sheets.

The sauce now has to be measured; this is done by transferring it by litre measure from one vat to another. Supposing the outcome of this operation is 60 litres of sauce, a measured quantity of salicylic acid is going to be added: 1 gram for each litre of sauce, plus 2 grams for every 10 litres – total 72 grams of salicylic acid.

Two or three handfuls of sea salt are added to the sauce and stirred in; it is then transported indoors to an aerated room and covered. At dusk the salicylic acid, precisely calculated, is poured in, the stirring repeated, and the sauce left to rest overnight, then stirred at dawn.

Bottling the Sauce. Using a funnel and some kind of jug, you fill each bottle leaving a little space at the top, the space being filled afterwards with a sprig of basil and a covering of olive oil. But first you have to ‘bump’ the bottles to get the air bubbles out. You then with a clean white rag clean the inside neck of each bottle, and line them up on a table, insert the leaf of basil, fill up with olive oil, and put in the corks. After two or three days you drive them in, and now have more than enough tomato sauce for winter, which is good, because you can give some of it away.

There are two other ways of making la salsa: (1) sotto la manta, under the cloak; (2) sterilising the freshly bottled sauce, by packing the bottles in straw and fitting them into a gigantic petrol bin, and boiling again. I have described the method we always use imparted by our neighbour Teresa because it is good. Without her help and instructions we might never have got down to it. Once the operation is mastered it is possible at the same time to prepare some pomodori pelati, a conserve of plum tomatoes, and la salsa secca, probably the most healthy conserve in existence.