Passata day is an annual Italian tradition that’s celebrated around Australia, often in January when tomatoes are at their best. It involves families coming together, chopping tomatoes, boiling them and then bottling the mixture for cooking throughout the year. Of course, at the end of a hard day’s work, it also calls for a classic Italian lunch, with homemade wine and lots of laughter. Author and second-generation Italian Melina Marchetta introduced passata day to many Australians through her iconic novel, Looking for Alibrandi. In the book, the main character, Josie Alibrandi, begrudges spending her summer day at home with her relatives slaving over passata when she would rather be at the beach with her friends.
Ironically, while this is a ritual that’s rapidly disappearing in Italy, Italian-Australians hold firmly to this tradition and the culture it represents. The Iulianos, a Calabrian family who live in Bexley in southern Sydney, are no different. Carmine Iuliano, known as Charlie to family and friends, is the stoic patriarch of the family. He, together with his wife Emma, her sister Elena, and friend Caterina have been making passata in Australia each year for the past 46 years.
Following his brother, Carmine immigrated to Australia – what was then known as ‘the lucky country’ – on 18 September, 1955. The pair, who had been pastori (shepherds) back in Italy, knew this was a big opportunity, and they worked back-to-back jobs, seven days a week to make ends meet and get ahead. While working in a factory, they also found the time to run a boarding house for Italians in Marrickville.
That’s where Carmine’s path crossed with his now sister-in-law Elena, who had arrived from Italy with her husband. Elena quickly saw the possibility of a match for Carmine with her sister, Emma, who was shortly due to arrive in Australia. Within a month of her arrival, Emma and Carmine were married. They’ve now been married for 45 years and have two children and three grandchildren.
From the outside, the Iuliano’s house looks like a typical, one-storey, red-brick structure, but the backyard hides a veritable secret garden. The block extends far beyond expectation and looks more like a farm than a vegie patch. Rows of grapes, eggplants, tomatoes and figs spill into an Italian-style cantina (shed), which holds the fruits of the Iuliano family’s labour, including homemade wine, prosciutto and other cured salumi, and, of course, passata.
After a caffè corretto (coffee spiced with a slug of liqueur) and a few slices of panettone, passata day officially begins. Emma, Elena, Caterina and neighbours Josie and her mother Lucia, sit around the cartons of tomatoes ready to chop, while Carmine mans the heavy machinery – a high-tech pulper.
Everyone has a specific role. The children place a few basil leaves in each prepared passata bottle (usually recycled ones, which are washed and dried by the women in advance); the women chop the tomatoes; the men operate the machinery; and one of the most experienced women in the group, a passata veteran, pours the passata, as wastage of any of the purée is not tolerated. Caterina is given that honour on this occasion. “I’ve been upgraded,” says Josie with a laugh as she cuts a tomato. “I’ve finally moved on from my role as basil inserter.”
The women trade tomato recipes while working, and soon the group swells as other neighbours and Carmine and Emma’s daughter Domenique arrives with her own daughter, Isabella.
Carmine and Emma usually use the tomatoes from their garden, but today, they’ve bought tomatoes from All Season’s Fruit Market, an Italian fruit and vegetable store in Bexley. The Iuliano recipe is a little unorthodox. While many other families boil and purée the tomatoes first before bottling the mixture, the Iulianos first peel and quarter the tomatoes, then push them through the machine to make a purée, pour this into the bottles, seal them and then boil the bottles in a vat of water for about an hour. “We have tried making passata both ways,” explains Carmine. “But this definitely makes for a fresher, tastier passata. Too much boiling won’t produce the same flavour.”
The place is alive with colour and noise, as other family members arrive and assess the day’s work, but mostly, to wait for lunch with anticipation. Emma, Elena and Caterina are back in the kitchen making a spaghetti, drizzled with the passata that’s just been made. Garlic and onions are fried in a pan, and once the onions are translucent, the passata is added, quickly heated and seasoned with salt and pepper.
“When we were kids, we used to hate passata day and wanted to be at the beach with our friends,” says Domenique relating back to Looking for Alibrandi, “but now, we understand the value of it, the tradition, the culture… and, of course we enjoy the passata!”
Photography by Alan Benson