Remembering il giorno della salsa (tomato sauce day) in Puglia

Growing up we used old fashioned pop bottles for the family salsa.

Growing up we used old fashioned pop bottles for the family salsa.

Nothing reminds me of my childhood in southern Italy more than il giorno della salsa. 

Growing up in Bitritto, a rural town in the region of Puglia, it was a one of my favourite days of the year. I would get so exited that I couldn’t even sleep the night before!

Making the yearly tomato sauce is an important tradition in southern Italy, but being a kid I didn't really think about that or make the salsa myself. My excitement was about seeing all those people working together, witnessing the big production of turning tomatoes into sauce, and eating a delicious meal to celebrate when the work was done.

Everyone played a role 

Usually there were three or four families working together, so the quantities were really large. I remember we would usually get about eight quintali of tomatoes for the day. To give you an idea, that’s 800 kgs, probably a lifetime supply of tomatoes for at least two average Canadian families!

If you want to know how we made that much sauce, the answer is that everyone had their own job and knew exactly what to do.

My mom and my Aunt Graziella where in charge of picking the tomatoes and cleaning the bottles.

My older cousins where in charge of carrying all heavy stuff.

My Uncle Vito was the tomato crushing machine operator. (He was a brilliant man who created his own crusher that was operated by a heavy-duty drill that would turn the crusher at very high speed.)

My father was in charged of  il fuoco, the fire. This was very important since we had to have a good fire going to sterilize the sauce. He had three big empty oil tanks going at all times, not an easy task, and he wanted to be left alone when he was working!

Il giorno della salsa is usually at the end of August or early September, depending on the season and availability. The best years for tomatoes are hot and sunny, without too much rain. This produces smaller tomatoes with more concentrated flavour, while rainy summers give you bigger but more watery tomatoes.

The most common salsa we would make was the passata, (cooked, strained and crushed plum tomatoes), but we would also make a few batches of pomodori tagliati,  just cut tomatoes with basil, all natural and uncooked.

My aunt had a big garden and she would grow the basil for the salsa. This was very important task and her basil was her pride. The smell was just amazing as soon she would arrive with it.

Cucinando sul fuoco (cooking on the fire) 

Cucinando sul fuoco (cooking on the fire) 

Making the passata

Once all the stations were ready, the production would start, and mamma mia this was the most exiting moment when everything started to happen!

First, tomatoes were washed in a big conca (bin).

Then they were lightly boiled in a big pot to soften them.

Next they were strained and poured into Uncle Vito’s mill to be crushed, removing the seeds and skins, to create the passata. That drill was so noisy we had to use gestures to communicate, but luckily as Italians we had no problem with that!

The passata would then go into another big bin, still hot. Then it was time for the last phase, the imbottigliamento (bottling).

First some basil and salt was put into the jar, and then we poured in the magic sauce.

The last step was to sterilize and seal the bottles by boiling over the fire in a big mettle bin. We used old oil tanks for this, and we had to place the bottles carefully and pack them tightly so they wouldn’t break. We’d bring the tank water to a boil, cook it for a few hours, then let it cool before removing the bottles the next day.

If you are curious about the pop bottles in the photo, our family business when I was a kid was selling mineral water, coke and beer, so we always had access to old-style Coke, Fanta, Sprite and Peroni bottles. They have thick glass that's hard to break, perfect for salsa. In fact my mom still uses them today! If those bottles could talk they’d have a lot to say after all these years, and they are well seasoned.

Today Mamma makes salsa with her best friend Bettina and my cousin Angela.

Today Mamma makes salsa with her best friend Bettina and my cousin Angela.

The family meal   

Now of course there is no giorno della salsa without a big family dinner, and this was my favourite part. We would use the fresh tomatoes, our first chance to try the year's sauce. 

With the sauce we would make mezzani, a pasta similar in shape to ziti or rigatoni but smaller. And because we had worked hard and needed our energy back, the table was full of antipasti. My uncle’s homemade cacciatore, olives from my father’s farmland, and fresh farm-made Pecorino were a must at our table, and of course the homemade wine flowed like a fountain, well deserved.

After the this amazing day of work there was happiness nell’aria (in the air) and the food tasted better because we were proud of what of what we had created.   

I don’t want to sound nostalgic about the old times, but traditions like il giorno della salsa brought people together, working as families and communities to achieve a shared goal. Years later when I tried store-bought sauces, even the best ones, they just didn’t have the same taste, because they didn’t have the essential ingredients of love, hard work and memories like our homemade passata did.


Ciao a tutti, thank you for reading my article. If you have comments, questions, or your own stories you can share them below. 

If you are interested in visiting Italy with me please check out my culinary tour.

Massimo