Signora Rosa Makes Passata


Signora Rosa Makes Passata


I pass the industrial estates of Coburg and head further north.  Towards the east the morning sun is high.  As I keep travelling north, past the holy grounds of the Buddhist Temple, I turn left at a roundabout and come to a small humble abode in a quiet street of Reservoir.  The neighbours are up early, peacefully watering plants in their pyjamas before the high summer sun has a chance to burn them.  It is predicted to be a hot day.

The modest home is made of sandy brick; two white iron gates framing the driveway are wide open and the garage door is rolled up. Revealed in its interior are two stainless steel, industrial catering tables placed parallel and equidistant, one in front of the other.  Miscellaneous catering equipment in bulk sizing- bowls, buckets, empty jars and platters, line their bottom shelves whilst their tops are strewn with cooking utensils.  To the right are two stoves, one whose fire is high, bringing a large pot containing Roma tomatoes to a rolling boil.

In amongst the miscellany, is the blessed passata machine. Taken down from its permanent tenancy on the high shelf, next to the sacred salami machine, it is given pride of place on the front table.

This garage has no space for a car.

There is a retro wardrobe lined up against the back whose mirror reflects harvesting activity back out into the world.  As I enter, I find Signora Rosa almost hidden, near the entry of the roller door, under the shadow of a lace curtain.  She is focused- bent forward, hacking the tomatoes at the little corner sink. She is determined get through the four polystyrene boxes of Roma tomatoes to make her passata.

“You don’t really need to do this, but I like to because it makes them boil faster,” she explains.

The lace curtain forms small shadows that veil her face and along with the star-shaped holes of a recycled colander hanging above, makes her look like a culinary angel.

It’s February.  Tomatoes are in abundance.  It’s the perfect time to make passata.  And as with previous years, Signora Rosa bought her annual supply from a trusted vendor.

“Last year I had six boxes and two boxes of bad ones.  This year I only have a few kilos of bad ones.  I didn’t even fill a box.”

Signora got to work well before I arrived.  A batch of tomatoes that had already been parboiled, sit wrapped in a white cloth left to strain in a tub.  Signora strains the first “yellow” water from the tomatoes.  She says this makes the tomato sauce sweeter.  To assist the draining process she presses them firmly with the rim of an empty stainless steel bowl.  Once sufficiently strained, she transfers them into a bowl next to the machine station.  The tomatoes are warm, their texture soft and their smell sweet.


The machine is activated.  It is an interesting multifunctional contraption that features as a protagonist in many Italian households during tomato season.  It has openings on all sides.  The opening on the top is what I call the brains of the machine, where the tomatoes are pushed through to be vitamised and directly below is a spout to funnel the puree.  On its side is a snout that spits the skins out, resembling a giant anteater, in the harvesting wilderness of this kitchen in the garage.

As the tomatoes are passed through the machine, the sauce comes out flowing like a rich river of red caught by a 33-litre pot, balanced on a plastic chair, covered with a lace doily.  However, it doesn’t end with one passing. The skins are actually passed through three times to maximise juice extraction so with each passing the puree becomes thicker.  The thicker the better.

I keep my distance to avoid being attacked by the spitting beast, unlike Signora Rosa who applies her ingenuity to control the animal.  She takes a cover fashioned from a bent lid of an old saucepan and affixes it to a bendable wire, maneuvering it to control the spillage and spitting.

“I’ve worked it out myself,” she says proudly.

I learn that the reason this process is called passata, is that the tomato is “passed” through the machine.  In Italian passata is the past tense of “to pass”.

“I was born doing this,” says Signora Rosa.  The memory lives in her machinations.

“We used to make the sauce every year with my mother and grandmother.  I remember we used to do everything by hand, but it’s so much easier with the machine.”

Once it has passed through the machine, the sauce is combined in a large tub.  A handful of salt is added and mixed with a giant wooden spoon.  Once the salt has dissolved, it’s time to bottle it.

A collection of recycled glass bottles have been supplied by extended family over the years.  Signora has sterilised them and lines them up, like little vacant, transparent soldiers ready to receive the thick rich puree of red.  At the funnelling station is a tray of freshly picked, aromatic basil from the garden.  A couple of leaves are dropped into each bottle.  Rosa likes to keep the seeds from the basil’s flowers in a container in the fridge.  “It makes the fridge smell so nice and it’s nice on pizzas too.”

She begins funnelling the red thick puree into the bottles drowning the basil.  Condensation forms within and she is careful not fill right to the top.  Sometimes the sauce misbehaves and escapes the funnel, landing on her hands, reminiscent of bloodied scenes of a B-grade horror movie.

Signora warns that when filling the bottles we must allow a few centimeters from the top so the bottles don’t explode during   pasteurisation – the final stage of the process.  Once bottled and sealed tight, the sauce is rested.

“I know how old this garage is because my daughter was born the year we built the house.  You know, I said to my husband when we were building the house, I don’t care what we do in the garage but I would like to have access to hot and cold water there.”

And 42 years in the future Rosa has steadily converted the garage into a fully-functioning cooking and preserving facility.

“I need this space to make the passata.  I can’t do it in the house, I would make too much of a mess.  I also need it to make the sausages in the winter.”

Simultaneously raconteur and labourer, I listen and watch Signora Rosa move about her facility with intuition, knowing exactly where everything is and what do next.

As she opens the cupboard underneath the sink to fetch another tea towel, I catch a glimpse of the preserved olives that are sitting in their brine.

My eyes widen. “You make olives too?” I ask in amazement, for preserved olives is one of my weaknesses.

Wiping her hands on the tea towel, she is quick to respond, “There’s more if you want to try.”

“Really, where?” I ask.

I follow her.  We pass the stoves, the mementos from her Calabrian village of Catanzaro, the photo of the late Pope John Paul on a plate, hung above an old Italian prayer from the Messagero, a religious magazine taped to the ledge of the window.  She walks me through a narrow white door that opens into a small dusty annex adjoining the garage out back.

A misty light filters through the window of a makeshift storage space made of wooden panels.  Shelves have been attached and lined with tall cylindrical jars of olives, both green and black and dozens of unused Victoria Bitter beer bottles collecting dust, a symbol of past practices.

“I don’t like to use these bottles anymore,” she says of the beer longnecks. “I like to see the sauce in the bottle.”

I scan to find my prize in amongst the collection of preserves.  She unscrews a lid off a long plastic bottle filled with kalamata olives.

Signora Rosa invites me to indulge in my love of olives.  They are citrusy, savoury and moreishly delicious.

The time has come to pasteurise the sauce.  Signora Rosa ferries the bottles to the back of the garage where, behind the wooden annex sits a 44-gallon drum raised on concrete bricks.  To the left is a small, niched compartment storing kindling.  To the immediate right of the 44-gallon drum is a water barrel, which receives water from a dislodged gutter, hanging precariously over it.

“I did that so it when it rains it can fill the water tank,” explains Signora.

I am always surprised to find ingenuity marking every perimeter of the garage and extending further beyond, which also take precedence in the most magnificent of gardens. Rosa’s garden is equidistant in length, width and breadth of the garage, whose produce is just as important as the activity of preserving.  Countless fruit trees are just finishing their season and some are about to start.  I witness basil, borlotti beans, parsley, Chinese broccoli, rocket, broccolinis planted in neat little rows, sectioned out and separated by little pathways.  The tomato plants are almost withered, as the stakes tenaciously hold up their branches, determined to live out their last crop.  Every corner of this little earth is filled with produce.

“I can’t do all the garden myself,” she admits. “I get someone to help me sometimes.”

Rosa lovingly wraps the bottles of passata with old bedsheet so that they do not break and layers them carefully whilst filling the drum with the rain water.  She proceeds to fire up the drum with kindling sourced from the alcove next door.

A smoky haze fills the atmosphere as the water begins to boil.  With the garden on her periphery, coupled with the communicative chickens behind her watching curiously from the coup, it all makes for a provincial setting in this little backyard in Reservoir.  Embers fly and smoke gets into her eyes, in her pores and into her skin.

Signora Rosa observes from the activity of the bubbles, if more firewood is needed.

Carrying a wooden stake resembling a mythical firekeeper, she pokes, feeds and tames the hearth, reminding herself of her mother, “Looking after the fire was my mother’s job when we made the sauce.”  Rosa has passata-making in her intergenerational bones.

“I like doing these things,” she adds. “Maybe it’s because I’m from the village, or that I’m a village girl, but I like to cook the passata in an open fire.  Some people don’t like it, they don’t like to get dirty.”

“I dunno,” she concludes.  “Some people, they are lazy. They like to buy the sauce from the shops.  But I like to make it myself.  I like to know what’s in the sauce and keep it for my family.”


4 boxes of freshly picked Roma tomatoes, in season
Special equipment
A tomato passata machine.
A kitchen in the garage with all the industrial cooking requirements.
And Signora Rosa.
For a passata recipe, please refer to the Mangia Mangia cookbook,  written by Angela Villella and Teresa Oates: on the chapter ‘Tomato Season’” pps 7-9 which outlines passata making in detail.


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