Originally cultivated by the Aztecs in Mexico, the tomato made its way back across the ocean with Christopher Columbus during the sixteenth century. The ruby-coloured fruit won the hearts of millions and even gained a new title – the love apple. While its aphrodisiac capabilities might be questionable, the obsession with this culinary staple is very real. For many there is no more elegant symbol of summer than a vine heavily laden with the fruit. The first sharp days of autumn herald the beginning of the canning season, an important ritual that stretches the warmth of the sunny season’s bounty into the dreary winter months. But, for many, the beloved tradition also holds a second, more sentimental meaning.
Each Labour Day weekend, Helen Roselli Alfieri and her husband Adamo Alfieri gather together with the rest of Helen’s extended family to mark two very special occasions. They happily celebrate the wedding anniversary of her parents Rosaria and Domenico Roselli while steeling themselves for their annual canning marathon.
“The canning is a real stress reliever,” admits Rosaria, “Although by the end of it, you don’t want to know anything about tomatoes!”
Sons, daughters, in-laws, grandchildren and friends, clad in their tomato finery (old running shoes and baggy t-shirts) commune in her basement for a two-day period filled with conversation, song and 40 formidable bushels of tomatoes. In the 35 years that she has been making her pomodoro pelate, Rosaria has never broken away from her 81-yearold mother’s recipe. The formula might run low on ingredients, but it takes an exacting eye to produce the best results. In fact, it wasn’t until she was well past 70 years of age, that Antonietta D’Ambrosio Fioriti, a native of Campobasso, relinquished her title of forelady and let her daughter take over the reins to lead the team.
Domenico Roselli is the appointed tomato expert. A few days before the labour-intensive task is to begin, he stops by Montreal’s Jean-Talon market to choose his produce, passing over selections that are overly green and training his gaze upon plump ripe 50 pound bushels that are just within perfection’s reach. After a strong cup of coffee on the first day, the real work begins. Each tomato must be rinsed and then placed in a pot of boiling water. With the authority of a watch dog, Rosaria surveys the pot, gingerly removing tomatoes as soon as their skins have begun to pucker. With her wooden spoon at the ready, Rosaria stands watch, forbidding anyone else from coming too close to the water. “It’s so hot. No one else can do this job – what if they were to get burned?” she says protectively.
Thanks to Rosaria’s perfect timing, the skins of the tomatoes slip off with relative ease. The fruit is then cored and squeezed lightly (very lightly) to get rid of any excess water. Meanwhile sterilized jars containing one teaspoon of sugar (to cut down on the acidity) and one teaspoon of salt (for a little flavour) have been prepared. Each jar also contains a spring of parsley, a few basil leaves and a thin slice of sweet red pepper. Working with 12 jars at a time, the tomatoes are added to each container until it is filled to the three-quarter mark. Then, using a wooden spoon, the fruit is mashed slightly to get rid of any air pockets. This is where things tend to get gloriously messy. Tomato juice inevitably spurts from the jars and laughter reigns supreme. Once the air has been removed, each jar is topped up with another layer of tomatoes and then sealed shut. Rosaria’s daughter Helen is always grateful to have a few strong hands to help out.
“There are just some parts of this job that you need a man to do. One year, I was the person responsible for sealing most of the jars. By the end, I had a lid-shaped bruise on my hand because of all the twisting!” she says.
Domenico is waiting at the ready for the final step. Using a small, portable propane stove, he boils the jars for half an hour, wraps them in a blanket and then places them in a box. The heat merges the delicate flavours of the mixture, creating a truly heady blend. The finished jars are then carted away, and the process begins all over again. A brief respite from the assembly line is offered during the lunch hour when everyone gathers for scrumptious sandwiches on crusty bread, sweet treats, and of course, a glass or two of wine.
The entire neighbourhood is familiar with the Roselli family tradition. “It’s so funny because people will tease us about it,” says Helen, “yet they are always dropping by to lend a hand for an hour or two. People are so busy these days. Outside of funerals and weddings, we don’t get to see each other that much. This gives us the perfect excuse to have a really good visit.” This year, a family friend from just down the street decided to join in on the festivities. As a French Canadian, Aline Baril, was completely unfamiliar with the tomato canning experience. She was so enraptured by the entire event, that she shot a how-to video for her sister who lives in the Maritimes and presented it to her along with a bushel of tomatoes as a birthday present. “Aline just loved the whole experience,” says Rosaria. “She can’t get enough of the tomatoes. Instead of putting them in a pasta sauce or soup, she just adds a little oil and garlic and eats them right out of the jar. They taste that good!”
While having access to the summer-fresh taste during the darkest months of winter is one incentive for the activity, it is obvious that it is not the most important one. Despite the heavy lifting, the rivers of escaping juice and the 12-hour shifts, the Rosellis cannot imagine forgoing their beloved tradition. Rosaria admits with a chuckle. They might grumble, but deep down everyone realizes how much fun they really have. The youngest generation has already begun to look ahead, planning how they will handle the tradition. “My 14-year-old niece told me that one day I’ll be coming to her house to make the tomatoes,” says Helen.
Canning is a symbol of community, a symbol of family. It is about stepping away from life’s hyperactive pace and spending two days surrounded by the people you love. It is about gossip and laughter and practical jokes. It is about remembering that sometimes, just sometimes, the simplest, most mundane tasks are responsible for bringing you the most pleasure.
written by Shauna Hardy