Some years ago I visited the small city of Lugano in Switzerland. The flight over the Alps was nothing short of spectacular, by far the most scenic I have ever done. Located on the shores of Lake Lugano and surrounded by the Lugano Prealps Mountains, the city itself is small (it has a population about the size of Windhoek) and quite charming in that old Western European sort of way.
Lugano is located in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, the southernmost canton of Switzerland. Like a lot of other European cities, Lugano is old – in fact, very old. Its origins dates all the way back to the Stone Age.
In between meetings and other boring, unimportant events, I got to see quite a bit of the city. Lugano has been a city of traders, for as long as the city has been in existence. The first street to the left of my hotel lobby consisted only of jewelers and proprietors of very, very expensive watches. Parallel to that, was a street with several high-end chocolatiers. I visited these quite a few times – more than once a day at least – for a few bite-sized pieces of heaven.
I loved the city’s old square. In fact, I had read most of Lawrence Durrell’s Mountolive in that square surrounded by neoclassical columns and colonnades. Given Lugano’s Italian heritage, I thought it best to restaurants serving local dishes. These were surprisingly hard to find, as Lugano these days caters for international tourists mainly, causing the city’s glamorous international veneer to mask its real Italian gusto and vigor. It was most apparent in its food, especially in the sauce that is the lifeblood of so many Italian dishes: passata di pomodoro (especially in the regions close to the Mediterranean). Translated it means tomato sauce, but that does not do full justice to this classic condiment that could only be described as an ode to the beauty of summer and tomatoes.
A true passata di pomodoro should never be confused with what we know as tomato paste, or ketchup, or tomato sauce. When made correctly it should have only a hint of garlic and basil lingering in the background. Its sweetness should come from the ripeness of the tomatoes themselves, reinforced only with a small amount of sugar, if needed. Its colour should be deep and its taste bright, clear and fresh.
It was across the lake in Como that I tasted a properly made passata di pomodoro for the first time. A few nonnas invited me taste their homemade version from a near-empty mason jar. It was as if I swallowed the entire Mediterranean summer in one go. It was bright red and chunky, sweet but not sugary. It was just perfect.
For many years thereafter I tried to replicate the nonnas’ passata di pomodoro here at home. Not once did I succeed, for never could I find the right fresh tomatoes. So I switched to imported, tinned Italian plum tomatoes and now I feel a lot happier. I still miss the taste of the Italian sun and soil in these tomatoes, but have made peace with the fact for now I have to make do with what I’ve got.
There is no reason of any kind for you not to have at least one large jar of passata di pomodoro in your fridge at any given time. It takes almost no effort to make and can be used as basis for almost any pizza, soup or pasta dish. And remember, when it comes to make this passata, there is no shame in cooking from a tin.