So long as it’s made from ripe tomatoes, I think sugo is fine without sugar, but my partner disagrees. What do you think?
Peter, Zollikon, Switzerland

September is the month when British outdoor-grown tomatoes are at their peak, not to mention cheapest, so hit the market, fill your boots and channel your inner nonna by making vats of this classic pasta sauce.

As for Peter’s domestic dispute, the simple answer is: it obviously all depends on the quality of the tomatoes, though, as with all cooking, your own tastes play a pivotal role, too, says Rachel Roddy, Feast’s Italian correspondent. “I don’t know where this idea that adding sugar is wrong or even an issue came from,” she says with a shake of the head. “After all, I’ve seen so many cooks add a pinch of sugar in much the same way as you’d adjust the taste with salt.”

Essentially, the less ripe your tomatoes, the more likely they’ll be to need a little something to help them along. Not only that, Roddy adds, but “plenty of tomatoes are really quite acidic, so will only benefit from a bit of added sugar”.

Even the great and the good of the food world can’t reach a consensus on the matter. Claudia Roden opts for “a teaspoon of sugar, or to taste”, for every kilo of fresh tomatoes (or 800g of tinned), whereas Anna del Conte adds the same amount to sugo made with tinned, but omits it “in the summer when good fresh tomatoes are on the market”; Alastair Little adds just “a little sugar” to his sugo by default, and Giorgio Locatelli only “if needed”. The queen of Italian food writing, Ada Boni, however, makes no mention of sugar at all, a path followed a quarter-century later by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray in their 1990s River Cafe books.

That restaurant’s current head chef, Joe Trivelli, is on-message, too. “I absolutely don’t do it,” he says, though he accepts that may have something to do with being fortunate enough to work only with impeccable produce. “It’s all about the tomatoes,” he says. “Good ones will be sweet enough as they are. Everyone used to put tomato puree in tomato sauce – well, my mum did, anyway – and that’s also pretty pointless; all it does is add an artificial, sweet taste.”

Mind you, Trivelli says, certain brands of tinned tomatoes come swimming in juice of questionable origin, so in some circumstances sugar is kind of forgivable. “After all, when I was a student, we were taught always to add a touch of sugar, but I’d forgotten about it until now – it hasn’t crossed my mind to do so in years.”

That said, officially the best sugo recipe in the whole world ever (don’t all @ me at once, please: it’s just a statement of fact), namely “tomato sauce III” in Marcella Hazan’s 1976 Classic Italian Cookbook, includes a quarter-teaspoon of granulated sugar per kilo of ripe plum tomatoes. To make it, wash and halve the toms, then simmer in a covered pot for 10 minutes. Pass the now slightly slumped fruit through a food mill back into the pot, add 110g butter, a peeled and halved onion, a touch of salt and the sugar, and leave to burble and reduce gently, lid off, for 45 minutes. Pick out the onion, adjust the sauce for salt, then toss through cooked pasta or gnocchi. You’ll never view pasta al pomodoro the same again, promise – as Hazan so modestly put it, this sauce is “unsurpassed”, and who am I to disagree?

Do you have a culinary dilemma? Email [email protected]



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