The tradition of preserving food, whether fruit, vegetables, meat or cheese is so fundamental to the cuisine of each Italian region and is one that still lies very close to the hearts of many, who cannot do without their mother’s plum jam, their nonna’s preserved mushrooms in oil or their neighbour’s own prosciutto.
Preserves, the topic of this month’s Italian Table Talk, where four food bloggers discuss an aspect or tradition of Italian cuisine, is appropriate as the Italian summer is a time for collecting the season’s abundant fruit and vegetables and preserving them for the winter. Be sure to check out what’s cooking in Juls Kitchen for her story behind French beans preserved in oil, as well as Valeria from Love Life Food‘s Eggplant sauce and Jasmine of Labna‘s gherkins.
The first thing that immediately comes to my (English language) mind when I think of preserves is jam. Jam is made all over the peninsula, from bountiful fruit that grows in backyards, weighing down branches, or baskets of cheap produce found in the market.
Pellegrino Artusi, who you could think of as the grandfather of Italian cooking, has an entire chapter dedicated to conserve (conserves, jellies or jams, which are also known as marmellate in Italian) in his 1891 cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. In his introduction to the chapter he describes how fruit jams are handy to have in the house, not only for their use in desserts (what would people do without the beloved crostata di marmellata?) but also for breakfast and as “un ottimo spuntino”, an ideal snack.
It’s interesting to note that the very first recipe in the chapter is one not actually for jam but for la conserva, the queen of conserves for all Italians, which is preserved tomato. More than a recipe, it’s a description of one of the millions of ways tomato puree is traditionally made in households across Italy with summer’s abundant tomatoes, bottled for use throughout the year.
Included in Artusi’s jam recipes are the usual suspects such as apricot, plum, blackberry, raspberry, quince, currant and orange. Some of the more unusual jam recipes are for hawthorn berries, rose petals (my favourite) and this one here – tomato jam. A sweet tomato jam.
Artusi treats the tomato like any other fruit – remove the seeds, add the rind and juice of a lemon, plenty of sugar and the fruit. He opens the recipe with a line from Dante (who else quotes Dante in a cookbook but Artusi?), Ch’ogni erbe si conosce per lo seme (literally, “every herb is known by its seed”), which essentially is to say that without the seeds in the jam, it’s difficult for anyone to guess what fruit this jam is actually made out of.
We are generally unfamiliar with eating tomato in a sweet way, and it really becomes almost unrecognisable in this jam, perhaps only its vermilion-red colour giving it away. If you didn’t know it was tomato, the flavour of this jam is actually hard to pin-point. One friend who was tested said it tasted a little like kumquat jam – or is that the lemon coming through?
It’s wonderful just spread on toasted bread, like any homemade jam, for breakfast, but try it also as an elegant snack, lathered on bread with (homemade) ricotta or goat’s curd and some fresh thyme.
Artusi’s Sweet Tomato Jam
Recipe No. 733
Artusi recommends using mature, round tomatoes and points out that it’s difficult to calculate the correct amount of sugar for this recipe because it depends in part on how watery your tomatoes are, so use the measurement below as a guide and adjust if you need. This recipe makes around 500 grams of jam.
- 1 kg of mature tomatoes
- 300 gr sugar
- Juice and zest of 1 lemon
- Vanilla bean, cut in half lengthways and seeds scraped (Artusi actually calls for vanilla essence, but how much nicer is a real vanilla bean?)
Remove the skin of the tomatoes by first scoring a cross on their bottoms, then blanching them in boiling water for a minute or two then plunging them into cold water – the skins will peel right off. Cut them into quarters and with a teaspoon, remove all the seeds. Chop the tomato flesh.
In a large pot dissolve the sugar in a little water (precisely “two fingers” worth of water in a glass according to Artusi), add lemon juice and zest. When the sugar has dissolved, add the chopped tomatoes and bring to a gentle boil, without the lid. Stir every now and then, keeping an eye out for any seeds that you may have missed and remove them. Just before the jam is done, scrape the vanilla in to the jam.
To test when the jam is ready, drop a teaspoon of it on a cold plate and tilt it slightly – if it runs off the plate and is syrupy, it’s not ready; if it holds the blobby, jammy shape that jam should be, it’s done! Pour into small jars and seal.
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