One of the challenges of growing your own food is that, if you want to grow a lot of it, you need to figure out a way of stopping it going bad before you eat it. The season for some fruits and vegetables is short. Some need very specific growing conditions. Tomatoes, for example, need heat and sun to produce good ripe fruit, so summer is the only time to grow them. This growing season can be extended, of course, by using a greenhouse or polytunnel. It can be extended even further with modern technology; a few years ago I visited a tomato farm in Iceland that used a combination of geothermal power, vast computer-controlled greenhouses, and bumblebees imported from Norway, to grow tomatoes year-round.
We don’t (yet) have a greenhouse or polytunnel, but luckily for us the summers in Burgundy are long and hot, perfect weather for growing tomatoes. Pretty much everyone grows some here; in gardens, on balconies, in window boxes. This year we’ve planted twenty-six plants of five different varieties – Coeur de Beouf and Buffalo Steak for some big beef tomato types, Roma for roasting long and slow, Saint-Pierre make an excellent salad tomato, and Sungold cherry tomatoes for all-important garden snacking.
In the kitchen, the tomato is such a versatile ingredient. It brings sweetness, acidity, substance, bright splashes of colour. Fresh, ripe tomatoes on toasted sourdough knock avocado toast out of the park. Roma tomatoes roasted with loads of garlic until sticky then tossed with basil, olive oil, and spaghetti is a brilliant, easy dinner (especially with the addition of a hard cheese of some kind). There is no picnic not improved by the addition of a bowl of cherry tomatoes, just-picked and warm from the sun. Sauces, salads, breads, stews, soups, cakes, all are possible with a handful of ripe tomatoes and a few other ingredients. And once you get to preserving, the possibilities, flavours, and textures are multiplied.
To my mind, the best ways of preserving tomatoes are canning and drying. To dry, you can simply cut the tomatoes in half and leave them in the sun, though you need a hot, fierce few days to make sure they dry well before insects or mould get to them. It is possible to make solar dryers if you fancy some DIY. You can achieve a similar result in a few hours in an oven on its lowest setting with the door slightly ajar. Once dried but still a bit fat and pliable you can submerge them in oil with some herbs and garlic, and they’ll keep in the fridge for a few weeks. Alternatively use a dehydrator to dry them out completely and store in an airtight jar or tub indefinitely; just rehydrate in some hot water prior to use. The flavour of dried tomatoes is an intense one, and a real smack to the chops of summer if used in the cold winter months.
Canning can be done in two ways – pressure canning or water bathing. I have not yet started to explore pressure canning, but have water bathed a good amount of tomatoes over the last couple of years. To do this, the tomatoes are cooked down and then passed through a moulin to remove the skins and seeds. (Don’t throw these away! Dried, powdered, and mixed with salt they make a great addition to the spice rack.) The resulting puree is then poured into sterilised Kilner jars (the ones with a rubber ring), along with a teaspoon of lemon juice per jar. These are then submerged in boiling water, either in a saucepan padded with wet tea towels or in a special pan with a rack and clips to hold the jars steady, for around 40 minutes. This kills any bad bugs, and the tomato and lemon is acidic enough to prevent anything from surviving and reproducing. It also pushes the air from the jars and forms a vacuum seal. These jars can then be stored somewhere cool and dry for a year or so.
(When preserving any foods, refer to reference books for safe methods.)
Dinner here on our smallholding is often late and we are often knackered, so having dried and canned tomatoes to hand in the pantry is invaluable. It saves buying tins from the shop, and we can be certain that the contents of our jars is 100% organic and home-grown.
Even if you just have room for a pot on the windowsill, I recommend growing some tomatoes – the flavour really is quite unlike any you’ll buy in the shops. A ripe, home-grown tomato is summer in a red globe, mirroring the globe of the sun in the sky, and sweet like nothing else.