Lurking in the Cupboard: Wooden Pestle, No Vessel

October 8, 2013

I found my mother’s wooden pestle for making tomato passata just after I heard Marcella Hazan died last month.

No longer used since my mother graduated to tinned Romas long ago, it had remained in her cupboard looking for a purpose. That trusty pestle had crushed thousands of cooked tomatoes through a sieve since my father had crafted it in the early 1960s. I wondered if it had ever doubled as something you slipped a sock over just before you were about to darn* it.  Utensil for making tomato passata

Tributes continue to flow for the 89-year-old revered author of six Italian cookbooks, including my favourite The Classic Italian Cookbook (1973). Marcella is credited with introducing the public in the U.S. and Britain to the techniques of traditional Italian cooking.

With an incredible repertoire to her name, it was a recipe for her simple Tomato Sauce 111 (sugo di pomodoro) that made her fans swoon. Maybe it was the unusual addition of butter rather than olive oil. Or that it’s so easy to make and the onion doesn’t require chopping and weeping.

I flicked through all my vintage and contemporary Italian cookbooks and none of the tomato sauces take butter during the cooking, just olive oil, so I’m curious to know how Marcella came to include it. And as I hadn’t made this sugo di pomodoro for a while I was interested to see if it was as buttery as I remembered.

I rarely make my own tomato passata these days but felt I had to make a batch for the sauce in honour of Marcella’s passing. And anyway, the wooden pestle was winking at me.

Four ingredients and three-quarters of an hour later we sat down to a satisfying – and buttery – penne al pomodoro. But I confess I added some torn basil leaves to the finished product.

I’m looking forward to next February’s Tomato Festival at the Botanic Gardens in Sydney as I hear they’ll be running a Tomato Sauce Challenge. Have pestle will crush!

[* In case any young folk are reading this, the Oxford Dictionary defines ‘darn’ as a verb meaning to mend (a hole in knitted material) by interweaving yarn with a needle.]

Related post:  ‘As the Tomato said to the Actress’ 

You might also like this tomato sauce recipe on the Italian Language Blog



  1. Your comment about Marcella’s use of butter instead of olive oil, has me curious, also. I will have to do some research.

    • Please let me know if you discover anything. I even looked in Artusi’s ‘Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well’, but it’s olive oil all the way!

  2. Her inspiration may come from her area of birth, Emilia-Romagna, See an explanation on use of butter in Northern Italy:

    • Yes, perhaps that’s her inspiration. Northern Italian restaurants both here in Australia and Italy used to put a piece or two of butter on top of the sauce on the finished pasta for the diner to mix into the dish as it was melting. I still do it sometimes. Or maybe the whole dish was discovered by accident, ie Marcella had run out of oil and was busy, so just threw everything together in the pot?

  3. I agree that butter is a curious ingredient in Marcella Hazan’s recipe – but I make it all the time, so easy, I just add a bit of sugar at the end. Rich and tomatoey for my potato gnocchi. Not very “triestina” of me, I know….

    • No, not very “triestina” of you at all … you will be excommunicated!

  4. Funny what will get people going: Butter? Olive Oil?

  5. How lovely that you have your mother’s pestle. Seeing it must have brought back wonderful memories. I enjoy using the old tools, and I am very glad I have some from my mother and both of my grandmothers.

    And indeed Marcella Hazan was a wonderful woman. I was terribly sorry to hear that she had passed away. She certainly left a wonderful legacy of books and tens of thousands of cooks whom she inspired. She lives on.

    • Thanks for your comments Adri. Of course I use modern kitchen utensils too, but there’s something so comforting using tools that have a family history, eg I still use our vintage manual coffee grinder (keeps my upper arms in good condition!) and a nutcracker – both of which I’ve written about in previous posts. And yes, Marcella certainly lives on!

  6. What a lovely post and tribute to your family’s passata making days, to Marcella Hazan, and to a wooden pestle. Nice work, lady!

  7. Thanks, I’d been dying to use the word ‘pestle’ too (always makes me laugh), so a good opportunity!

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