Late Summer in a Turkish Village

At summer’s end, when tomatoes are at their peak of flavor, and the best price in the local pazar, village dwellers all over Anatolia spring into action, unloading massive copper kettles, and procuring enough firewood to last the three day process of making salca, a rich, intense tomato paste.
Every year I receive a standing invitation to make tomato paste with my Turkish relatives in their village, about 4 hour drive from Istanbul with no traffic. Including traffic, the trip can morph into a good six hours, a potential nightmare with kids in tow. In the past I refused this generous offer because I was afraid my presence would somehow mangle the process, but then I realized…I didn’t have to take charge. I just needed to lend some much needed sweat equity. It is a majorly laborious, hot and smoky, three day process that must be wholly committed to. Perhaps therein lay the problem. Commitment was the root of avoidance. However, last year my fall and winter consumption was at an all time high, so there was no way to free myself from the psychological burden of guilt, except to participate.
The experience was gorgeously controlled chaos, and my mother-in-law, the General, was in charge. Her platoon consisted of said daughter-in-law, sister, and a mashup of various neighbors. The first day, the environment and seating arrangements were relaxed, excitement rising as the women rushed around procuring the best chairs available for the hours of sitting and slicing that lay ahead. Outside the front door, armed with cutting boards on our laps, and sharp knives in our hands, we commenced, chopping crate after crate of tomatoes, which had been dumped into enormous, plastic, hose water filled bins, and  washed clean. The quartered tomatoes were placed in large sacks, which then rested on milk crates overnight. This trick allows much of the watery juice to drain out. The next day, the General awoke before the first call of muezzin, the Islamic call to prayer, to start a wood fire, and begin the arduous process of unloading the many sacks of tomatoes into a copper cauldron.
The tomatoes simmered for hours until soft, loose, and reduced. We all took turns stirring this boiling pot with a giant wooden stick, a scene straight out of a fairy tale. It was so hot one could only stir for a half hour or so at a time. The cooked tomato slush was then put through a large food mill to remove the skins and seeds, and then returned to the pot to simmer again. The tomato reduction had to be continuously stirred to prevent burning, which can happen in an instant. This would ruin the entire winter supply of tomato paste, incurring the wrath of all present, so the pressure was intense. Everyone had a spot on the rotation, and took multiple shifts during the day, without exception. This time sugar and salt was added, then the sauce was reduced further until it resembled a loose paste. This last stage in the cooking process was the most difficult, because it had to be stirred at a brisk pace, truly a labor intensive job, that must to be done smoothly in order to avoid searing drops of liquid fire on your skin.
These women get together every summer to make this labor intense, umami rich salca, and I admire them for it. The taste of this tomato paste is unparalleled to anything store bought. When I run out of a jar, and am forced to buy some from the store, even if its labeled “village style” , if limp was a flavor, this would be it. The handmade stuff is smoky, tangy, and full bodied. It tastes of summer when it’s fresh, and slathered on buttered toast, though as the jars settle on the shelves, over time, the flavor deepens, and intensifies.
When the General and her troops can’t prepare it by hand anymore, I will carry on the tradition with my children, friends, 50 kilos of tomatoes, and a fire pit, wherever I happen to be in the world.

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