Passata palaver: Tomato prices soar, but tradition lives on

From the outside, Teresa Recce’s home looks like a charming suburban Melbourne cream brick veneer house. Inside, however, it could well be the city’s passata-making headquarters.

This year, it’s not just the cheerful busywork of making the traditional Italian pasta sauce that’s on everyone’s minds. There is a tomato shortage: quality is down and prices are up.

Teresa Recce (centre) with her husband Gerardo and mum Maria D’Amelio as they prepare for passata day on Sunday.Credit:Penny Stephens

When you step inside the Clayton house, you can hear the soundtrack of Elvis Presley humming and smell last year’s haul of homemade tomato pasta sauce simmering on the stove in the kitchen.

There is enough sauce in the pot to make lunch for the entire family and some close friends. They will fill the mother-of-two’s backyard on Sunday for a much-loved annual family ritual of making passata – tomato pasta sauce.

Walking into the backyard is like visiting an Italian village. It’s green and lush and bursting with fruit and vegetables – enough to rival the Queen Victoria Market.

There is cockatoo called Cocky and chickens that lay fresh eggs. Recce’s mum Maria D’Amelio lives in a small, brick house in the backyard and her sister, Claudia, lives in the townhouse next door.

Recce in the shed where all the passata is kept. Credit:Penny Stephens

Twenty white, foam boxes filled with fresh Roma tomatoes are waiting to be washed in a nearby outdoor bathtub. Then they’ll be cooked, sieved, poured and sealed into dozens of recycled glass bottles.

D’Amelio, 77, said passata day was her favourite tradition of the year.

“It reminds me of home and fills me with love,” she said. “My parents taught me, then I taught my kids. Now, my grandkids know the tradition.”

But this year, for the first time in decades, the Recce family struggled to source their treasured tomatoes. They paid $640 for 20 boxes – $5 more each on last year.

Friends and extended family have, too, been scrambling with markets and growers selling out.

“Italians being Italians, we’re all calling our friends to help each other and try to find out who is selling the tomatoes for the sauce,” Recce said.

Northern Victorian Fresh Tomato Growers Association president Angelo Borzillo said growers who supply Roma tomatoes solely for passata sauce market have had to put their prices up due to increases in farm labour costs and flooding events. It’s affected the quality and supply of the fruit this season.

Borzillo said the cost of potassium-based fertilisers and agricultural chemical treatments had also swelled, and worker shortages were still proving challenging.

“Farmers in general have had to absorb a lot of the fixed and variable costs in the industry in the last two to three years,” he said. “They’re just unable to do that anymore.”

Frank DeAgostino, owner of Lakes Fresh Food Market in Melbourne’s north-west, said he feared the worst was yet to come.

A few weeks ago he was paying $25 for a 17 kilogram box of tomatoes from a farm in Shepparton. Now he’s forking out $33.

“Six years ago, we were paying $12 or $13 for the same tomatoes,” DeAgostino said. “It’s crazy.”

“We’ve got a lot regular customers, old Italian ladies, who come in and they see the price of the tomatoes, and they say ‘no, no it’s too much’.

Frank DeAgostino from Lakes Fresh Food Market with a fresh delivery of tomatoes.Credit:Scott McNaughton

“I say ‘I am sorry signora, but that’s what the price is, the farmers are doing the best they can’.”

Still, Recce’s husband Gerardo, who hails from the same small town just outside of Naples as her parents, said a jar of their homemade sauce was priceless.

A shed in the backyard is stacked with dozens of jars of sauces from years gone by. Their special pizza sauce was cooked and sealed in 2011.

“You will never want sauce from the supermarket again,” Gerardo said. “The longer you leave it, the sweeter it tastes.”

This year, Recce will take on the tradition of salting the tomatoes, something she learnt from her mother.

But she said the real secret to a good batch of sauce was a bit of hard labour and love.

“The real key is determination,” she said. “A lot of love goes into every jar.”

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