Nonna’s Tomato Sauce


I have been travelling a lot in July, not so much in August. The two months had a noticeably different rhythm and a very opposite feel. July felt suspended, ethereal, with me constantly on the move and up in the air, struggling to feel settled or make sense of where I was, for I wasn’t anywhere for long enough.

August, in contrast, was a static month, and yet one full of restless anxiety, of changes, of big announcements and strict deadlines. I suppose all these factors, in different ways, are part of the reason why I have been absent from the pages.

However, I did want to share more about a short visit I paid to my homeland back in July, and to my nonna in particular. When I visited, I found her in her beloved ‘basement kitchen’ while she was jarring tomatoes and making fresh tomato sauce. Needless to say, she jumped on the chance to teach me a thing or two about canning while we chatted the morning away.

As it turns out, Grandma’s tomato sauce isn’t any more special than any good homemade tomato sauces you’ll find all over Italy, and it’s made in a very similar set of steps. Of course, we love hers because it’s hers. Like so many Italian recipes, every household has its rules, its secret ingredients, and alledgedly, the ultimate recipe.

To be fair to Grandma’s recipe, though, it something to be proud of, not least becaus ot the excellent raw materials that go into it. Her homegrown tomatoes, for starterts. Sweet, fleshy but with just enough water to turn saucy, they are undoubtly the key ingredient for a successful sauce. To these, she just adds a bit of oil, salt, garlic and basil (both her own, too), so as to let the tomato flavour take centre stage.

I wish I’d brought some of her bottles of sauce back to London. She seemed distressed by the fact I couldn’t take any. As I was struggling to explain the concept of hand luggage to her, I was pondering whether her sauce was worth checking a bag for. Then, I remembered that I’d be back again in late September, at which point no one will come between me and some proper pasta rossa.


Tomato Sauce

5 Kg saucing tomatoes (such as San Marzano)
6 garlic cloves, crushed
A small bunch of fresh basil
Fine grain sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil

Wash the tomatoes thoroughly and place them in a bucket or large basin. Cut them in half and remove the seeds. Place the tomato halves in the largest stockpot you have – or divide them between two.

Heat the pot(s) over a low-medium heat. At one point, you will see that the tomatoes are starting to release their juices. Add a splash of water (about 60 ml) and leave them to bubble down, stirring occasionally to make sure they cook evenly. Once they have let out all their liquid, lower the heat to the minimum and allow the sauce to simmer for about an hour.  Check and stir it often.

Meanwhile, sterilise 6 x 500ml jars and lids (I wash them in the dishwasher and then dry the jars in a low oven).

Go back to your sauce and taste it. Season with a generous dash of salt (how much depends on your taste; start with about 1 ½ teaspoon fine grain sea salt); stir, wait a couple of minutes, then taste again and season some more if needed. Remove from the heat. Allow the sauce to cool ever so slightly so that you can handle it comfortably.

Working in batches, scoop the tomatoes and pass them through the mill secured over a bowl small enough for it to sit comfortably (as soon as the bowl fills up. transfer the sauce to another container and carry on). Once in a while, discard the scraps, peels, seeds and fibrous bits to make room for more tomatoes. For an extra-smooth sauce, you can mill it twice; I’m usually happy with one.

Fill the sterilised jars with the sauce, leaving 1 cm from the edge. Place a garlic clove and two basil leaves on top, then finish with a tablespoon of oil. Close tightly with new, sterilised lids.

Proceed with the second sterilisation. Place the jars in a pot filled with water, putting  atowel between them to keep them separate. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Leave to cool in the water for 30 minutes, then pick up and place on a tea towel. After a few hours, check that they are sealed.  Store the sealed jars in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months, and in the fridge once opened.

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