I say tomato
New resident Gill Meller
The aroma of ripe tomatoes on their vine is special: sensory, warm and coddling, like childhood ...
Igrew up near the busy market town of Bridport in Dorset. My dad was a keen gardener: he liked growing new potatoes and runner beans in the big vegetable patch, and my mum liked growing tomatoes and soft herbs in her little green house. They cooked simple, fresh food for us. Buttered potatoes straight from the ground, beans with tarragon and black pepper and lettuce salads trickled with our family dressing.
In late summer, my mum would make salads with her homegrown tomatoes; she’d slice them thickly and toss them with diced red onion and fresh coriander as a side for roast lamb or grilled mackerel. I remember it so clearly and, to this day, find the aroma of ripe tomatoes so special: sensory, warm and coddling, like childhood.
I didn’t plan on being a chef. When I was 18, my wife, Alice, and I had our first daughter, Isla, and I began working in a kitchen. Soon I realised that I really enjoyed it, and, actually, I was quite good at it too.
Cooking has since become a part of who I am. I’ve spent the past 10 years or so cooking at River Cottage, a smallholding that produces its own fruit and vegetables in a simple and respectful way. There’s a beautiful walled garden and several productive polytunnels, which are right now full to bursting with of all sorts of tomato varieties with curious names such as Orange Banana, Green Zebra, Marmande and Scotland Yellow. Every time I go in, I pick a few and eat them in situ – they want for nothing else.
These days it’s easy to buy tomatoes at any time of year, just like apples or strawberries. We import loads of them, but they’re never as good to eat or cook with, so over the winter and spring I’ll eat other things or use decent tinned tomatoes instead.
When tomatoes are in season, I tend to treat them pretty simply. In many cases I’ll serve them straight up, bar some good olive oil and some flaky salt, good bread and saucisson. I like them with crab and aioli, or with lightly cured fish, and I love them with herbs. Fresh tomatoes with lovage (an unusual but delicious garden herb) are incredible, or with lots of chopped mint and capers or cheese and dill.
Occasionally, I’ll make a sauce or a soup with the really ripe ones. Both are made by roasting the tomatoes with garlic, thyme, salt, pepper and olive oil, and then passing the soft, blistered fruit through a sieve. The resulting puree or passata is incredible, and makes the most refreshing chilled soup. For a rich sauce, it might need to bubble away on the stove for a little longer.
There are no special tricks to today’s recipes. They are, at best, delicious assemblies, inspired by what I have to hand and the food-producing landscapes that surround me. Each of them celebrates the beauty that is sunripened tomatoes, while we still have them in season.
That said, you can make the pasta sauce with tinned tomatoes and pep up lacklustre supermarket varieties with garlic, herbs and seasoning in the fish recipe. Online you’ll find a panzanella-style salad with tomatoes, anchovies, egg, bread and tarragon – a flavour explosion – which would be as good in winter using raf or marinda tomatoes from the Mediterranean as any British seasonal varieties.