It began with 120 kg of tomatoes. Six huge boxes of small, somewhat oval tomatoes of a Sicilian variety called siccagno, from the word secco, dry. They’re grown in tiny bushes, low to the ground, without any water at all. When you cut them open they’re just flesh, no juice, and deep, deep red. They taste almost savoury, as if they’ve been sprinkled with salt. Intensely tomato-y.
It’s late August and I’ve arrived (with my special little helper) at Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school , a mecca for food lovers and farm to table cooking (the likes of Alice Waters and Grant Achatz have come here, searching for inspiration) in rural, central Sicily. It hasn’t rained since May and the empty, scorched golden hills that we’ve been watching grow since leaving Palermo two hours ago are bone dry. Case Vecchie, the school’s home, led by Fabrizia Lanza in her mother Anna’s footsteps, is like an oasis among the hills — orchards, vegetable gardens, vineyards, hens, a deep, refreshing pool and the deep blue windows and doors lining the stone courtyard are a heavenly sight.
We’ve come to make astrattu or estratto, tomato paste, for the school’s inaugural Tomato Week, a highlight of their program and one of the first gatherings they’ve had since the pandemic began. I always knew I was going to love this but I wasn’t prepared for how deeply these four days would penetrate my whole being. That might sounds over the top but somehow the very act of chopping, stirring, mixing, checking, eating and talking with a group of eight like-minded women was just the balm I needed with all the negative things going on in the world. Tomato paste made the ancient way, using the sun and wind and time, needs care, patience and community. It was a grounding and entirely inspiring experience.
Fabrizia put us to work right away, we spent more than 2 hours chopping tomatoes, then put them to boil with onion, garlic and bay leaf until the pulp gave away completely. An electric passaverdura helped us turn the pulp into juice, spitting out the seeds and skins much like a hand-cranked passaverdura does. The 120 kg of fresh tomato becomes about 70 litres of this pulpy juice. To this, 900 grams of salt is added. Then, out in the hot sun, we poured the juice onto eight large wooden tables set in the protected stone courtyard. They dripped for a day, being carefully checked every 30 minutes or so, the solids settling on the wood, the water dripping off as it should, until we could move the extract onto just four tables. The sun beat down relentlessly on the backs of our necks while we stirred and checked the paste or sliced tomatoes and figs to sun dry on a large rack.
At night, we brought the tables inside, and in the warm morning sun, they came back out again. Soon, we could scrape the extract onto two tables, with more checking, and stirring to allow the crust that had formed on top move to the bottom and the softer, wetter tomato paste to move to the top and finally, it was just one table. We moved from spoons to dough scrapers, and the tomato paste grew denser, darker, deeper red — the smell was unbelievable — tasting so intense, almost candied.
At the end of the third day, we were able to place that last remaining table of tomato paste into a large basin — reduced to about six kilograms now — and then it goes in the shade, inside, and for the first time, covered, to settle until it was solid enough to roll into balls with oiled hands and be placed in glass jars for that taste of Sicilian sunshine throughout the year.
This extract is so good you could eat it by the spoonful, or spread onto crostini of Fabrizia’s homemade bread, sprinkled with some dried oregano and a bit of olive oil. But otherwise you would add it to soup, sauces or stews.
We also made salsa pronta, or bottled tomato sauce, ready to use or “pronta” for a taste of summer all year round. “They come from the same mother,” explains Fabrizia of the tomato paste and the salsa pronta, “But one comes with a dowry of a lot salt — precious salt — and the other with a dowry of basil, garlic and olive oil.”
We made many more delicious things while we were waiting for the sun and wind to do their thing.
We picked figs from the dry, crunchy, sunburnt orchard and we made jam, the creamiest fig sorbet and I contributed a little bit of Tuscan flavour with a schiacciata all’uva made with both grapes and sliced figs. One day Fabrizia made us her gelo di mellone, an absolutely delicious watermelon jelly that was such a treat — I have never tasted a watermelon quite like the ones grown at Case Vecchie. We also made cavatelli with the Case Vecchie durum wheat, and eaten with homegrown almonds and sage, blended into a pesto. Roast pork with mint and garlic. Casatelle — ricotta stuffed into a deceptively thin pastry of ancient grain flour, olive oil and white wine, deep fried and dusted in cinnamon and sugar. Oh and the most wonderful involtini di carne, basically a way to make a tiny bit of meat stretch far, made delicious with breadcrumbs, corinto currants which we had dried in the courtyard and patiently picked off their stems, pistachio and more. When it was too hot to cook, or eat, or even sit in the kitchen, we retreated to the glorious swimming pool with ice cold drinks until the afternoon sun faded a little.
The evening aperitivo sitting in the courtyard was so delightful that we decided that our favourite way to do dinner was in the same place, buffet style, taking plates on our laps and eating in the cooled courtyard with a bottle of wine and plenty of (good, relevant, inspiring) conversation. I might miss those evenings even more than the delicious food.
It was more than a cooking class, more than I had hoped for. It was an inspiration, it was a balm. It was meditative and the connections that were made around that kitchen and that protected/protective courtyard is something I will treasure. I can’t wait to come back next year to host my own workshop there — it will be the week of 5-11 September — and it will be along the same line as Fabrizia’s philosophy, using the bounty of the summer, slow cooking, using our hands and making the most of what we have. We will hopefully visit a local ceramicist and the local cheesemaker for that delicious ricotta. If you’re interested in knowing more about it or booking, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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