No one was convinced that this would work except Mario and Vittorio.
It seemed that we had not found the right partner with whom we wanted to work with or who wanted to work with us, so I had already considered this meeting to be over, had packed my bag and begun to mentally summarise our field trip.
Back then we had four tomato producers on our list, two in Emilia Romagna and two in Tuscany, each one with a very different kind of people and appeal. The first company we visited was huge, but their sheer size and production capabilities left us with little hope that they would offer the flexibility that we were looking for. The second company seemed a better match at first, they taught us some important lessons about large-scale cooking, but they seemed absurdly disorganised. Our contact person at the third company, that we had intended to visit, had forgotten about our visit and was too busy to receive us – or perhaps just not interested. The fourth company seemed the perfect match: they only work with organic produce, their facility is powered to 100% by solar power and they serve delicious coffee. This fourth meeting, however, was somewhat confusing, with lots of negotiation about technicalities right from the start. If we wanted to work with them, we would have to learn very fast and adapt our notion of how to cook ketchup to theirs.
While I was prepared to go back to the hotel and call it a day, Mario persisted, took one of our ketchup prototypes and placed it in front of Vittorio, principal of the company. Vittorio tried a spoon full, then paused for a moment before he nodded a very pleased nod and said: “Questa roba ha un sapore fantastico” [this stuff tastes fantastic].
In the end, fortunately, Mario’s gut feeling was right: this week – a little more than two years and a few challenges later – we cooked our first 10.000 bottles of ketchup in Vittorio’s kitchen. His kitchen looks more like Willy Wonka’s factory except that everything is made from shiny stainless steel and the product is not brown but red. Over the last three days we moved 4 tons of tomatoes, chopped 500 kg of onions, 10 kg of garlic, ginger, etc. We mixed it all, cooked it, filtered it and filled it into 10.000 bottles. We had fun. Even Andrea, the production manager who usually frowns at me, danced to the Sugababes roaring from my boom-box and couldn’t hold back a smile when he tasted Curtice Brothers’ first commercially cooked ketchup.
Scaling-up our recipe, from a small quantity to 10.000 bottles and working with fresh ingredients that vary in flavour from one season to another, there were a few adjustments to make. And having been the only Curtice Brother present during production, those were my timid decisions to take. The tomatoes, for instance, are the product of the magnificent Tuscan soil, the fresh air, the salty wind from the nearby sea and last year’s miraculous mix of early rain and long summer. Those environment variables produce a different flavour every year, and last season’s tomatoes turned out to be the most succulent with sucrose concentration about 30% above average. But thanks to Vittorio’s tremendously dedicated, profoundly knowledgeable and determined staff and the fortunate absence of mistakes, we managed to compose a delicious ketchup.
Thank you Sophia. Thank you Andrea. Thank you Luca.
Thank you to everyone else who helped us make this work.