Tomato season

My Irish-American grandmother, the one married to my Italian grandfather, famously snarked that "Italians would eat shit if you put tomato sauce on it." I like to think that this was less a slap at Italians than a backhanded tribute to how good a well-made tomato sauce can be, a truth that has been validated yet again by the deeply satisfying tomato sauces we've been served over the last couple of days.

In early September Danny and I and our son returned to Montagano, the little mountain village in Molise where my kids and I were officially registered as Italian citizens following our residence there last summer. Our son wanted to go back to get his Italian carta d'identita', and Danny and I were happy to come back to see our friends here and enjoy the beauty of the town and the surrounding countryside. And, of course, the food.

In Molise, as in the rest of southern Italy, tomatoes are an essential ingredient for all kinds of mainstay pasta, meat, and vegetable dishes, and putting up your own tomatoes is an essential domestic skill. At an outdoor market in the regional capital, Campobasso, several vendors were selling tomato pulverizers and big bags of jar lids, and one stand had a gigantic electric tomato press and cooking pots the size of hot tubs. Which just goes to show that tomatoes are serious business in Molise, even for people for whom it isn't a business.

Tomato love is particularly strong in Montagano, which prides itself on the quality of the tomatoes grown here. They're Romas, firm and bright red and, according to the locals, unusually sweet and flavorful. All around the village are little plots where people grow tomatoes for their own use.
This little tomato patch was tucked into a hill at the edge of town...
...and this one was on the outskirts, on the road to the neighboring town of Matrice
We arrived just as tomato season was ending, meaning that everyone in town has been busy cooking, canning, and drying tomatoes for the coming year.

That includes our friends Rita and Maria. I don't know if we just happened to have become pals with the two best cooks in town, or if--as they claim--everyone around here cooks like this, but these two women and their husbands certainly know what they're doing. 

Rita and Fernando both work full time, but they also cure their own capicola and make their own wine, not as some sort of artisanal cosplay but because that's what you do around here if you want to eat well. Rita also puts up scores of jars of tomato sauce and peeled tomatoes that her family dines on all year long.

One day Rita invited us over for a lunch that featured the family's wine, salumi, and tomatoes. The first course was pasta e fagioli (white beans and short noodles) in a light, sweet tomato sauce. When Danny asked Rita if she added a little sugar to her sauce, she looked as if he'd suggested she might have used Red Dye #2. "No!" She waved a finger. "You only put sugar in sweets and coffee." When the tomatoes are good, she said, you don't need any added sweetener. And in Montagano, the tomatoes are good.

The next day we had lunch at Maria and Claudio's. Maria told us she'd just finished doing her tomatoes for this year, both peeled tomatoes and tomato sauce. Outside her front door were three crates full of home-canned jars of tomatoes. I assumed this was her 2018 tomato stash, but no, these were just extras she'd put up for her daughter, who'd be coming over soon to pick them up.

Maria's tomatoes figured prominently in the lunch she served us. First, fresh spaghetti in a tomato ragu different from Rita's, deeper and meatier. That's because before Maria poured it over the spaghetti she'd cooked her second course in it, a platterful of pork-and-veal meatballs, spareribs, and sausages.

Danny put the same question to her that he'd asked Rita: Does she add sugar to make her sauce so sweet? Maria was less of an absolutist. "If the tomatoes aren't so good, you add a little sugar," she said. "But this year the tomatoes didn't need any sugar. They were good."

After lunch she let me come up into her attic to see her tomato stockpile: hundreds of jars of Montagano tomatoes that Maria had peeled, cut up, cooked, and canned. She explained that since she and her family eat tomatoes in sauce or some other form every day, she needs a good supply.

In addition to the four hundred or so jars she made for this year, she's got a hundred or two more that she saved back from 2017, tucked behind a curtain. "I like having some extra," she told me, "in case anything happens."

Maria and her backup tomatoes.
No matter what disaster might occur, it's good to know that at least there will be enough tomatoes.