One of my favourite things about the transition from summer to fall is preparing food for winter. In a time when we can get almost any food — at any time of year — I love the lengths people still go to preserve food (and tradition). As a recipe developer, I spend a lot of time trying to anticipate food trends, and it’s nice to have a few things that don’t (and shouldn’t) ever change. Canning ripe roma tomatoes in late summer is one of them.
Recently, I was invited to the annual canning of roma tomatoes by the Presti family of Beamsville, Ontario. The Presti’s are just one family among many who take part in this annual tradition. The matriarch and patriarch of the family (Nonno and Nonna Presti) have been married for 52 years, and they have been canning romas for just as long. This year, their children, and their families are here for canning day. The task at hand? Seven bushels, each bushel yielding anywhere between 20 and 23 litres of tomato sauce.
The tomatoes are washed and checked for imperfections before they are quartered lengthwise and placed in a large tub. In batches they are then loaded into the milling machine (they have upgraded to an electric powered machine instead of a hand-grinder), which removes the seeds and skins, leaving behind sweet, pulpy tomato juice.
The juice goes into a very large pot over industrial-sized propane stove and is brought to a boil (with a touch of salt). Once boiled for the appropriate length of time — one or two fresh basil leaves are dropped into the base of a mason jar, and the jars are filled, sealed and whisked away to be stored. Each family keeps their own stash of this liquid gold.
Nonno clearly enjoys his position as foreman. He supervises, stirring the sauce with his homemade super-sized stirring tool (he actually built it for making ricotta, but found it works well for this as well). He teases the young ones for stirring counter-clockwise instead of clockwise and calls out orders to encourage the efficiency of an already perfectly-oiled machine.
Nonna’s job is of equal importance. On top of preparing all the jars and organizing the entire day, she prepares the midday meal for the family: a spread of home-cured meats, pickled and grilled vegetables (from their garden of course), and a pan of roasted rabbit and potatoes that gives off a sweet aroma, filling the house. The family laughs, jokes, and pokes fun at each other. You want to curl up on the couch and stay all day.
As each jar is tucked away, a taste of summer is preserved to be enjoyed in the heart of winter. You can buy high quality crushed tomatoes, but why? The most expensive canned tomatoes couldn’t hold a candle to this. Nothing to change, nothing to improve, nothing to tweak.
Thank you Presti’s, and happy canning to all the other busy kitchens out there!