Homemade with Love
If you happen to walk down the alley behind St. Vincent de Paul in Hintonburg late in the summer, you might get lucky enough to meet Ermindo DeMeis.
Every autumn, the spirited 87-year-old sets up an impressive tomato sauce-making operation out of his tidy little garage on Caroline Avenue.
“We’ve been doing tomatoes forever,” says 56-year-old Angelina Trunzo, DeMeis’s daughter. “I remember being five years old and going to pick tomatoes. We used to pick at least 20 bushels from the farm.”
It’s a tried-and-true Italian tradition that’s nearly as old and every bit as authentic as DeMeis himself. Growing up in Abruzzo — not far from Rome — DeMeis recalls watching his own mother making tomato sauce. He has, however, refined his own technique over the years.
“He really has it down to an art,” says Trunzo. “He’s very particular; he has his own set up and his own little way of doing it.” DeMeis’s process for making tomato sauce is beautiful in its simplicity. It all begins, of course, with fresh tomatoes.
“As young kids we used to go to the farm to pick the tomatoes,” recalls Trunzo, who is one of DeMeis’s five daughters (he also has two sons). Depending on the tomato, if they need to ripen more, we spread them on a huge tarp on the garage floor to let them ripen a bit.”
Romano tomatoes are the ones to look for, adds Trunzo. “The ones with the oval shape; they’re more pulpy,” she says.
The tomatoes are washed and subsequently boiled whole in a huge pot over a large Bunsen burner — an essential step in ensuring a thicker, richer end product, says Trunzo.
“I’ve made tomato sauce with friends who use a different technique — they cut the tomatoes, squeeze the juice and then pass it through the mill,” she says, adding that her parents’ manual mill was replaced by an electric model about 10 years ago. “But by boiling it, some of the water comes out of the tomato; otherwise the water stays in and after canning you’ll have a few inches of water at the bottom of the jar.”
After boiling, the tomatoes are passed through a mill with a huge plastic drum catching the precious juice that squeezes out of them. “The seeds and skin would be passed through the machine at least two more times,” says Trunzo. “My parents believed this made the sauce thicker and richer.”
Then, one-litre mason jars are arranged on a large table and a generous sprig of fresh basil is dropped into the bottom of each.
“You can’t put the jars on the table before the tomatoes are puréed,” explains Trunzo. “You can’t go ahead — you have to go step by step.
“We’re allowed to help only if he says we can help; we get in heck if we don’t follow the rules.”
DeMeis uses a large funnel to pour the fresh tomato purée into each jar. Next, he tightens the lids and rings on each. “Once filled, they are tightened by Daddy; he’s the only one who does this step,” says Trunzo.
Finally, the jars go back in the water-filled pot and return to the burner to boil for 10 minutes, which seals the jars. Exactly 33 jars fit in the pot, says DeMeis. It’s clear he’s done it so many times he could likely do it with his eyes closed, not missing a single, flavourful drop.
Once cooled, they’ll sit in the garage for a week or two; there’s the odd jar that will explode and it’s better that this happen there than in someone’s pantry.
Trunzo’s childhood memories overflow with images of her industrious parents.
“My parents were busy, we were busy,” she recalls as we sit on the porch of her childhood home, which her father still keeps in immaculate condition. “At harvest, probably in August, they always did their tomatoes.”
She and her siblings were always involved in the process of making tomato sauce.
“I remember we all used to get a turn cranking it,” says Trunzo of the tomato press. “You’d turn it around and the juice would come out; it was really exciting.
“We all know how to do it; we all do tomatoes — it’s a lot of work.”
Her parents always took a team approach to making tomato sauce. When it came to opening the jars and cooking with it, however, Trunzo says her father always had a special touch.
“My dad makes an awesome spaghetti sauce,” she enthuses. “We used to tease my mom all the time; we’d say, ‘Daddy makes a better sauce than you.’ She would say, ‘Oh well, I don’t know what he does to it,’ she would get so mad at us.”
Her parents gardened together, too — growing Romano beans green beans, Swiss chard and tomatoes for general consumption and those destined for sauce. Trunzo says her parents believed in feeding the seven children only homemade food.
“They made sausages and they canned pickles, cauliflower and celery,” says Trunzo. “We grew up on biscotti, eggplant and peppers. When people marvel about trying roasted peppers in a restaurant, we’re kind of like, ‘been there, done that.’”
The best, she recalls, was making gnocchi. “We loved putting our thumbprint into each one, creating the little dent,” she says. “This was to catch the homemade sauce we made from scratch every summer.”
DeMeis is known to offer up authentic espresso or homemade wine in his pristine kitchen — an addition to the modest space the kids called home years ago. Framed photos on the walls recount decades of a happy, bustling family life; in the living room, a huge collage depicts the growth of his seven children and their respective marriages. Now, there are 19 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. It’s clear they mean the world to DeMeis.
“Growing up in this house… we were nine people, one bathroom,” reflects Trunzo. “Back then, life was simpler — we didn’t use a blow dryer; we all had a drawer in the dresser.
“Now we all have to have 100 pairs of shoes; we all want more.”
Trunzo picks up a framed portrait of her parents, who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on Oct. 30, 2014. Her mother, Guiseppina, passed away just a few days later, at the age of 83. “My mother loved to sing,” she says fondly. DeMeis’s face contorts when we discuss her passing and he says little; the pain of losing his soulmate is still too fresh.
“It was shocking for everybody,” says Trunzo of losing her mother. It was really hard on the kids, too; they spent a lot of time with their grandparents.”
After her mother’s death, Trunzo and her siblings weren’t certain if their dad would continue making tomato sauce. “We were so happy that he was still doing it and keeping the tradition,” says Trunzo, adding that each of them brings their own jars over to her dad’s house and he sets to work.
“Last year, to pass the time, I did 900 jars,” says DeMeis, who often gets up at 6 a.m. to start the process of making sauce, working through the day till around 4 p.m. “I have the Italian program on the radio.”
The jars are dispersed equally between his seven children and their families. “Even though we’re in our 50s, my dad is fair,” says Trunzo.
Her own daughters, 19-year-old Alexa and 17-year-old Leanna, enjoy helping to make tomato sauce, too. “They’ve been doing it since they were two or three years old,” says Trunzo. “They love it.
"The beautiful thing is that our parents will always be with us in our regular, everyday cooking,” says Trunzo. “They passed their heritage and traditions on to us, and what we know about food is that it has to stay real.”
Nonno DeMeis' Famous Tomato Sauce
Trunzo says, “This is what we call a plain sauce. You can use this on pasta, when making lasagna or chicken parmesan or whatever you choose. It smells just like summer.”
1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
½ teaspoon oregano
2 to 3 - 1 litre jars of home-stewed tomatoes, with basil
fresh basil leaves, to taste
Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil. Add jarred tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add oregano, salt and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer for a few hours. Add fresh basil, to taste.
Optional: Place pork back ribs, veal chops or homemade meatballs in a roasting pan and roast till rare. Add the roasted meat to your sauce and simmer for a few hours. Add extra basil, if desired.