Whenever I visit Sicily, I buy plastic vacuum packs of tomato concentrate, ‘stratto’, in the local market. It’s a whole other story to the slightly metallic commercial tomato paste you usually buy in shops. The flavour is intense, sunny and full of umami. Come the summer, once the tomatoes are ripe, every Sicilian household makes their own tomato concentrate or sauce. This is how they have fruity, sweet tomato sauce for the entire year.
I am staying near Ragusa in a family farmhouse and guest house called Tenuta Cammarana. Owners Silvia La Padula and Guiseppe Pulvirenti, an architect and a sculptor, live the winter in Rome and from April in Sicily. The house is beautifully styled, with cookbooks and art books in the library, local ingredients such as the daily freshly-made still-warm ricotta from a neighbouring farming family ( I tasted it from the copper pot simmering on a fire) and the almond granita with brioche, delivered every afternoon by their own personal ice cream man. Granita and gelato are socially acceptable as breakfast or lunch in Sicily, it’s often too hot to eat anything else.
Tenuta Cammarana make their own olive oil and grow carob trees, which they transport to a local cooperative to be used in pharmaceuticals or made into syrup.
Silvia showed me how to make a refreshing drink from jasmine flowers, a local recipe that adds ten of the heavily scented flowers to a litre of water. In short it’s a foodie paradise, with beautiful countryside and gorgeous stylish interiors, using her vintage finds from markets in Rome and Modica. Her garden droops with pomegranate, feijoa, prickly pear, hawthorn and olive trees, tiny chillies in bouquets, scented herbs; you can take an outdoor shower under an almond tree then lounge around at the pool while drinking Aperol Spritz and nibbling on small fried pizzete.
To make the tomato concentrate, special terracotta majolica dishes with a blue and yellow tin glaze, known in dialect as ‘fanguotto’, are used. These absorb the heat and aid in dehydrating the tomatoes. I’ve also seen it made on large wooden tables.
Italians have tomato grinders like British households have electric kettles and toasters. It’s just as basic and essential! You will need one, either electric or manual, for this recipe.
The Sicilians use two types of tomato: Rico di Parma, like beef heart tomatoes, and Piccadilly, more like plum tomatoes, which are native to Southern Italy despite their British-sounding name. If they consider the tomatoes too acidic, they will add a local white onion, enormous in size, from Giarratana village.
Once the paste is prepared, it need to be dried in the sun, which is no problem in Sicily. This summer in the UK, we’ve had the kind of relentless sunshine and lack of rain which is perfect for this recipe.
Local grandmother Sebastiana and owner Silvia laid out a white netting fabric over the table containing the fanguotto dishes, knotting it underneath, almost as a bridal veil. It felt like a sacred routine.
Sun dried Sicilian tomato concentrate 'Stratto'.
- 3 kilos fresh ripe tomatoes, washed
- 1/2 white onion (optional)
- 3 tsps sea salt
- Cut up the tomatoes into chunks, taking out any damaged bits and the hard core. Add the onion.
- Put the tomatoes, onion and salt in a large saucepan on a medium heat, keeping the lid on to bring it up to boiling temperature. Removing the lid once it is boiling. You are trying to reduce and extract the water from the tomatoes
- Using a tomato grinding machine, pour the mixture through, which separates the juice from the fibre of the tomatoes.
- Do this three times.
- Pour the juice into the shallow terracotta dishes. Lay the three wide dishes in the sun, covering with cheesecloth or netting to keep off the insects, stirring occasionally.
- Bring the dishes in at night or if it rains. In August, this should take three days. Eventually the tomato juice shrinks and fills only one dish.
- Scoop it into clean glass jars and top with olive oil. You can also vacuum pack the tomato concentrate.
- This can be used in sauces, in stews or on toast. The stratto is so delicious I will even use it directly spooned onto hot freshly cooked pasta as a sauce in itself.
Cernia alla Matalotta
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large white onion, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1 large Grouper or Sea Bream fish, cleaned
- 1/2 glass white wine
- 1 tbsp stratto tomato concentrate, diluted in a glass of water
- Take a large deep frying pan and heat the olive oil on a medium heat
- Add the onion, garlic and salt. Fry for a few minutes until the onion is golden
- Place the fish in the pan and let it brown on both sides.
- Pour in the white wine, let it evaporate.
- Add the 'stratto'.
- Continue to cook the fish for 15 minutes with the lid on.
- Serve hot.
Pesto alla trapanese
- 50 g fresh basil leaves
- 2 tbsps Stratto tomato paste
- 50 g almonds
- 1 tbsp grated pecorino
- 1 tbsp pine nuts
- 1 clove garlic
- 3 tbsps olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- basil and pine nuts for garnishing
- Blend all the ingredients together.
- Cook any pasta in boiling salted water, then drain, stirring in the pesto while the pasta is hot.
- Garnish with pine nuts and basil leaves