Tomato purée (l’astrattu)
An intense summer sun that lasts uninterruptedly for at least a week; a tomato that is not too watery and very sweet, picked when fully ripe. These are the two indispensable elements for the success of thetomato purée or, as they say in Sicily, l'astrattu, a communal preparation that involves the women of the family for two weeks in the summer and that colours the balconies, terraces and courtyards red.
It is a great ritual of Sicilian cooking that every year, at the end of summer, sees the participation of entire communities in the choice of an uninterrupted period of sunshine, in preventing the Sirocco wind from boiling the tomatoes and souring them, in handing down unwritten laws and superstitions so that the last preparation of the summer may succeed perfectly.
Significant superstitions of an atavistic peasant culture that today raise a smile. It was in fact a rite, that of the extract, absolutely feminine; linked therefore to the cycles of the moon, where women were priestesses destined to celebrate in a condition of absolute purity.
Traditions aside, this condiment is still today the essential basis of many traditional regional recipes. Used when cooking meat or sauces for a long time, or simply to add extra flavour to tomato sauce, it can be added directly to the preparation while it is cooking or dissolved in a little water.
To make a kilogram of astrattu, the ingredients can be counted on the fingers of one hand: 20 kg of dry and sugary tomatoes (the ideal tomato is the Siccagno, grown without extra watering in the Madonie mountains), a few tablespoons of excellent extra-virgin olive oil (to “taste” the subject better, continue reading here), a few large vine leaves, a few dried bay leaves, and salt to taste.
The list of tools required is much richer and more “specialised”:
- a large copper (‘a quarara) or steel cauldron, not aluminium which would alter the flavour
- a tomato mill, possibly electric
- large bowls for collecting the passata
- maidde (large wooden shelves with a low rim around them) or alternatively wooden boards (i scanatura)
- gauze cloth to cover the maidde, protecting the passata from flies and insects
- glazed earthenware or ceramic plates for the final stage of preparation (fangotti)
- earthernware (or glass) pots and large cork stoppers for storage.
The tomatoes, selected and harvested when fully ripe, are washed, stripped of their stalks, poured into the quarara after being crushed by hand and seasoned with a little salt. It is cooked over low heat for up to two hours, with the tomatoes being turned continuously.
Once the fire is turned off and the tomatoes have cooled, the skins and seeds are separated and removed from the pulp using a tomato press, which is then spread evenly over the maidde and sprinkled with salt.
From this moment on, the slow drying process begins in the sun, which can last up to a week; the maidde are covered at night to avoid humidity. The pulp, which becomes drier and darker by the day, is constantly turned, compacted into a few maidde, and finally the dense pulp, which has become dark red in colour and soft and dry in consistency, is gathered into a single fangotto.
After a few days in the cool, with hands well greased with oil, the astrattu is compacted into a flattened ball and placed in terracotta pots greased with oil. A few bay leaves, a large vine leaf and a large cork complete the preservation process and the astrattu is ready to be used for a whole year, until the family ritual is repeated once more.
In a different version, to reduce the wateriness and therefore the cooking time, the tomato is dried on the maidde raw for a whole day. Another version, which is even more radical and therefore takes much longer, requires only raw preparation.
The consistency of the astrattu depends on how it is prepared: it is grainier on maidde or scanature, softer on ceramic fangotti.