The main ingredient of the perfect tomato sauce is love. It is love for the main ingredient, the tomato, and love of the process and what it takes to make a perfect sauce.
The colour, texture and taste of a tomato varies. It depends on the variety, it also depends on the sun and the season when it is picked. Making a tomato sauce might sound like the most trivial thing to do. Most would not even hesitate to open a tin of tomatoes to make a sauce.
Spaghetti with tomato sauce is the food of childhood memories. If there is one dish that takes us back in time it is this. And today, it is also a staple on children’s menus in restaurants.
The spaghetto al pomodoro by Fulvio Pierangelini is legendary. Some years ago, when his restaurant Gambero Rosso was still open, he had lectured university students in Bologna about the significance of a great tomato sauce.
He had told students that he had a responsibility to cook a great tomato sauce because ultimately everyone could cook a tomato sauce and given at the time he was chef of the highest ranked restaurant in Italy, he needed to cook something special.
So when I received an invitation from the man himself to go and meet him for lunch (where he would cook a spaghetto al pomodoro), I was not only honoured but also intrigued. What constitutes an exceptional tomato sauce. And how can one of the best chefs to come out of Italy in the past 20 years create a dish of such simplicity but one that was worthy of being served in his world famous restaurant?
Fulvio Pierangelini needs no introduction among food lovers. An Italian who today is consultant to Rocco Forte Hotels, he is maybe one of the most enigmatic, underrated and captivating chefs of our time. He hates the limelight and didn’t even know that restaurant guides existed when he opened his restaurant in 1980 in a small fishing village in Tuscany in the middle of nowhere.
I owe Fulvio a lot when it comes to my passion for food. It was at his restaurant that I ate parmiggiano reggiano for the first time (I had a phobia of cheese) and it was a visit to his restaurant that made me take food more seriously. The memory of that experience lingers on.
I arrive at the Hotel Amigo in central Brussels to find Fulvio peeling the tomatoes as chefs Clare Smyth, Gert de Mangeleer and Petter Nilsson were preparing their mis-en-place for the Gelinaz! Brussels headquarters event that was going to take place the next day at the Brussels restaurant Bon Bon.
He has peeled all the tomatoes (obviously fresh), removed the seeds and is not using a knife to chop the tomatoes. “The way you cut a tomato will have an impact on the final taste of the tomato,” Fulvio tells me.
It is not a dish that he served at his restaurant though there was a time when he put it on the menu at the price of a pasta dish with lobster to trigger a reflection about the work that goes into making a great tomato sauce.
He had told students at the time that mothers would order the dish for their children but how could be tell the parents that this was not a ‘children’s dish’.
I notice that he is not using a knife to cut the tomatoes. Instead he cuts the tomatoes by hand, slightly crushing them in the process. This he tells me will enable the tomatoes to absorb all the flavours that are added to the sauce.
“If you do not cut the tomatoes by hand, the tomato is cut but has a very sharp edge which will remain sharp even when cooking and hence it will not absorb all the flavours that come out of the herbs, the garlic and the olive oil.”
The choice of pan you use is also extremely important. The tomatoes need to have as much contact with the olive oil as possible. So the taste of the tomato sauce would be completely different if you use a narrow pan as a lot of the tomatoes would not be in contact with the olive oil.
Fulvio starts the tomato sauce by putting all the ingredients into the pan before he heats the pan. He uses extra virgin olive oil, hand crushed cloves of garlic, basil and thyme and the tomatoes (which had been meticulously peeled, seeds and cores removed and then hand chopped and crushed). It is only at this stage that he puts the heat on. He then adds salt and sugar to correct the acidity. “The further away you are from August, the more sugar you need to add to correct the acidity,” Fulvio says.
After cooking the sauce for 15 to 20 minutes, Fulvio removes the garlic, basil and thyme. “At this stage, they are dead and cannot add anything else to the sauce. Even the way you handle the garlic is important. The taste imparted by garlic whether it is chopped, crushed, cooked whole with the skin on or peeled and coooked whole.
Fulvio adds fresh basil into the tomato sauce and a knob of butter. He then tops it with Parmesan, asking if it was fine for me as I nodded telling him that by now the phobia was as good as over.
He adds the spaghetti that has been cooked al dente and continues to cook them in the tomato sauce mixing constantly (like you would do with a risotto). The dish is ready to be served. He plates the dish adding a touch more of parmesan and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil which he brought with him to Brussels from Italy.
At table, he apologies to his fellow chefs that the tomatoes are not the best he could find (November in Belgium) to which Gert, the three Michelin star chef of Hertog Jan jokingly asks if he had a problem with Belgian tomatoes.
It is a dish of incredible simplicity yet perfect because of the process that had gone into making it. How different would it have been if the tomatoes had been chopped with a knife instead? Who knows. But the main lesson here is to know and respect your produce and ingredients. And to make the most of what they can offer without taking any short-cuts.
Note: I am deeply grateful to Alexandra Swenden, the co-curator of Gelinaz!. It was she who made the introduction to Fulvio as soon as she got to know that he was one of the chefs who triggered my passion for food and wine. This story is thanks to her. Alexandra curates the Gelinaz! events together with Andrea Petrini, the latter being the co-founder of the collective of chefs together with Pierangelini years back.