FoodStuff - sauce of inspiration

By John Lethlean
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Flinders Farm Tomatoes, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

Flinders Farm Tomatoes, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria [©Mornington Peninsula Gourmet]

It’s become fashionable over the years, in foodie circles at least, to explain one’s passions and vocation in terms of hearth and home, the mother who weaned the child whilst simmering pots of stock, kneading short pastry for home made steak and kidney puddings and creaming butter for wicked old fashioned desserts. The child who tugged endlessly at apron strings from infancy, unconsciously taking in everything from clarifying consommé to preparing a tempura batter.

Uh, pass.

Mum was an okay cook; she knew a well hung piece of porterhouse when she saw one, cooked duck once a year for Christmas and cooked eight million lamb loin chops in-between those yuletide feasts, but she wasn’t a passionate cook. And other than teaching me her method for making Bolognese sauce, which she was very proud of having learned it from an Italian neighbour in Williamstown in the days when having an Italian neighbour seemed quite exotic for a girl off a farm in Tasmania, and the correct way to scramble eggs (with garlic-chives and too much butter) mum didn’t pass on a whole lot of nurture to go with the nature that made me what I am.

Curious about food.

But. There had to be a but.

My mother made, every year without fail and any suggestion of contradiction, the most superb tomato sauce I have ever tasted, to this day. I’m not talking Italian tomato passata (that’s coming up again soon) or thick, heavily spiced dark chutney, which I’m not so keen on. I’m talking about sauce, the artisan equivalent of what you squeeze on to a pie at the footy. Something that is to Mr Heinze’s product (sorry Mr Heinze) what freshly ground Arabica espresso is to Nescafe (sorry M. Nestle).

Slightly runny, slightly chunky, rich and gently spicy, complex and sweet, yet savoury. Mysterious. I can taste it and smell it now, yet I haven’t consumed any for years.

After the old girl met her maker, we treasured the last bottles of the stuff left in the pantry. At that stage, I was actually in the pie and pastie business, and while we made a pretty good product from the beginning, the addition of Barb’s tomato sauce took a proper Cornish pastie into a different culinary realm.

Mum’s sauce, I was fond of saying at the time, made a Cornish pastie sing like a Welsh choir boy.

But when she went to the grave, she took more than just a lifetime of memories. She took the wretched sauce recipe; It was all in her head. Or so I thought.

In Tassie some years later visiting one of my late mum’s dearest friends, I was served some cold cuts of lamb and ... The Sauce. This is what the island was like for my parents’ generation; everyone knew each other, or at least knew of each other, had gone to school together or ridden together as kids, and clearly grown up with the same tomato sauce recipe.

Lovely Mary Crisp, dear friend to the Jones girls, had not only hung on to a recipe that tasted outrageously close to the best tomato sauce in the world, but she still made it, every year. And this year, I’m going to too.

It is, after all, tomato season, the time when families and groups gather round whirring Italian machines that turn cheap Roma tomatoes into bottled tomato puree and diligent mums and dads preserve, pickle, chutney and kasundi (can chutney and kasundi be verbs?).

I’m reliably told by the purchasing officer who should take 90 per cent of the credit for our annual tomato bottling output, that boxes of saucing Romas usually come in at around $18-$20 each, with a varying weight between 15 and 18 kilograms, this time of year. In other words, the sun is shining and its time to make hay.

But in the quiet of my own kitchen, making tomato sauce will be a solitary labour of love. It will not be as good as mum’s. Or Mary’s. A mere recipe cannot replicate 60 years of love and experience.

But I reckon it may go close. The imperial measurements are deliberate.

19lb (8.63kg) tomatoes
2lbs (0.9kg) onions
8 apples (this is, after all, a Tasmanian recipe)
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tsp cayenne
0.75oz (21.3g) cloves
1.5oz (42.5g) allspice
0.25lb (114g) salt
3.75lb (1.7kg) sugar
1.5 pints (0.7 litres) vinegar

Slice tomatoes, onions and apples. Put spices into a calico pouch and tie securely. Throw everything into a very large pot and simmer for three hours. Allow to cool before passing the lot through a hand-cranked food mill (Mouli). Fill sterilised containers and seal, either with wax or some other method. Make a pastie.


From a collection of John’s food writing 2005-2008.

Follow John Lethlean and Necia Wilden on Twitter as they eat and drink their way around Australia

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February 10th, 2009
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