I say tomato

New res­i­dent Gill Meller

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Gill Meller is a chef, food writer, stylist, cook­ery teacher and the former head chef at River Cot­tage in Devon. His first book, Gather (Quadrille) is out in Septem­ber. @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.

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