Tomato, salt and sun: the art of Sicilian concentrate – Italian Cuisine

Tomato, salt and sun: the art of Sicilian concentrate

It is the Sicilian preserve par excellence, still made with the ancient processing. It is a ritual that involves all the families of Aspra, a small fishing village on the outskirts of Palermo, and, on 8 and 9 September, also all those who want to participate in the Ciauru ri astrattu event. Here are the details

The wind throws open the windows of the houses overlooking the sea and the festive voices of the children echo from the courtyard in the courtyard to cover the screech of seagulls. The men are busy carrying heavy wooden boards under the scorching sun of Sicily while their agile and quick hands, of their women, spin in the air like a magical dance, engaged in the preparation of tomato concentrate. A collective rite that every summer involves the entire community of Aspra, a small fishing village on the outskirts of Palermo.

The ancient workmanship

"Making tomato extract makes us happy and keeps bad thoughts away" Pina and Nina Balistreri – two elegant and volcanic sisters, both resident in Aspra – shine and are moved to recall childhood memories of a family tradition that, with strength and tenacity, tries to survive in an increasingly industrialized world.

Tomato extract (u'strattu in Sicilian) is the Sicilian preserve par excellence, always present in the iconic dishes of the Palermo cuisine such as pasta with sardines, tuna in sauce (tunnina ammuttunata) and meatballs d'anciova (anchovy). To make it happen you need three basic ingredients: tomato, salt and sun. To these are then added the expert movements of the expert hands of the ladies of Aspra who have been dealing with this preparation for generations: the tomatoes are cleaned, washed and left to dry overnight. The next morning we proceed with the squeezing. The sauce obtained is arranged, with slow and always the same gestures, on large wooden tables (the maidde) perfectly clean and dry so that the sun – with its warm and persistent rays – can dry the tomato. A process that lasts an entire morning. Afterwards, the concentrate to which Sicilian sea salt is added is collected at the center of each table (80g per 10kg), to then be leveled again with your hands. In the afternoon we finally proceed to the collection of the extract, arranged in smaller tables and left to rest in the shade for two days. "Processing in the past took place in the courtyards because it required a lot of space," says Pina, "and from time to time the shift family involved in the preparation was helped. They were days of celebration because whole families gathered. But they also required so much effort, in fact I remember that no one cooked for fatigue and ate only bread with oil and tomato . The last phase is the bottling of the concentrate: with well greased hands of oil it is placed inside large glass jars covered with a white cloth surmounted by a little mound of salt to absorb the moisture of the extract. The ladies of Aspra still practice this custom: "I remember that Dad," adds his sister Nina, "wanted to always have at home a" badduzza "(ball, note) of extract at hand, to give even more flavor to the dishes prepared by mother .

Appointment for all in September

For those wishing to experience the magic of this ancient rite, on 8 and 9 September the Cultural Association Altura organizes the event in Aspra Ciauru ri astrattu (extract fragrance). "The ritual of preparing tomato concentrate," he says Rosellina Mantini, president of the association, "accompanied our summers when we were children, as well as the smell of tomato lying in the sun. We cannot risk that this heritage should be lost and our commitment is to celebrate and highlight an all-female knowledge that is handed down between generations and that can be saved from oblivion only by recalling it .

Two whole days to discover stories, legends and anecdotes about the preparation of tomato concentrate, its link with the salt extraction activities and with the catch. Instead, it will be up to local chefs to show the public its use in the kitchen. Original the idea of Antonio Sciortino, owner of the restaurant Colapisci, to create a pizza with a mixture of 5 Sicilian grains and a topping that reproduces the seasoning of the typical pasta with sardines (the concentrate is a fundamental ingredient of the recipe), today proposed as a welcome to the guests of his beautiful restaurant on the seafront of Aspra .

The event will also feature some of the most talented Sicilian chefs: Martina Caruso, 1 Michelin star chef of Signum of Salina, Marco Baglieri of the restaurant Crucified in Noto, Giacomo Caravello of Balice in Milazzo, inaugurated this summer, e Bonetta Dell’Oglio, the chef champion of the protection of Sicilian biodiversity.

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