An intense summer sun that lasts for at least a week and a little watery, very sweet and perfectely ripe tomato. These are the two indispensable elements for a good tomato extract, or as it is said in Sicily, the astrattu, the essential element of many tomato-based traditional recipes, a choral preparation involving the all women of the family for weeks, giving a reddish coloration and flavour to any balcony, terrace, and courtyard of many Sicilian villages.
It is an important rite of the Sicilian cuisine that every year involves entire communities in the choice of a long and continuous sunny period, trying to prevent that the scirocco wind boil the tomatoes and make them become sour, perpetuating unwritten rules and superstitions so that this utmost summer preparation is perfect. Popular superstitions that tell about an ancient peasant culture that, maybe today can make you smile. That of the tomato extract, in the past, was an absolutely feminine rite connected to moon cycles, that women, like ancient priestesses, celebrated in complete purity.
Tradition aside, this seasoning is still today the essential basis of many traditional Sicilian recipes. Used for cooking meats or sauces, or simply to enhance the tomato sauce, it can be added directly to the cooking preparation or dissolved in a little water.
To get a kg of tomato extract, you need just a few ingredients (you can count them on one hand): 20 pounds tomato with a low level of water and sugar (the most recommended is the siccagno, a particular variety cultivated without water in the soil of the Madonie mountains), a few spoonfuls of excellent extra virgin olive oil, some large leaves of vines, a few dried leaves of laurel, salt (the right amount).
Much richer and “specialized” is the list of the necessary tools:
- A large copper or steel cauldron (‘a quarara’). Avoid aluminum that would alter the tomato flavor
- an ellectrical tomato squeezer
- large bowls to collect the puree
- Maidde (large containers made from a single, rectangular wooden block, with raised edges) or alternatively wooden boards (i scanatura)
- a thin veil to cover the maidde and protect the tomato puree from flies and insects
- glazed pottery or ceramic dishes for the final stage (fangotti)
- earthenware or glass vases and large stoppers for storage
The ripe tomatoes are washed, deprived of their stalks, poured into the quarara after having mashed them a bit and seasoned with little salt. They are then cooked on a low heat always mixing well; this can take up to two hours, so women take turns all the time.
Once the fire is turn off and the tomatoes are cooled, they are put in a tomato squeezer to separate and remove the skin and seeds from the pulp which is later spread on the maidde and sprinkled with salt.
From this moment on, a slow sun drying begins, which can last for a week. During the night, the maidde are covered to protect the pulp from humidity. The tomato pulp, every day drier and darker, is constantly mixed, compacted into a few maidde and finally assembled in a single fangotto. It is now dense and dark red and has a soft and dry consistency.
After a few days, the extract, now cooled, is compacted and placed in oiled terracotta pots. Some laurel leaves, large vine leaves and a large stopper complete the preservation and the extract is ready for beeing used for a whole year, until the family rite will be repeated once more.
In a different version, the tomatoes are dried in ther raw state for a whole day, in order to reduce their wateriness and therfore their cooking time. A further version, even more radical, and therefore much longer, requires only raw preparation.
The consistency of the astrattu is connected to the preparation board: it will be granier if prepared in maidde or scanature, softer if ceramic fangotti.