HIGH SUMMER ON A PLATE
Harbingers of the end of the growing season, these jewel-like stunners gladden the eye and perk up our palates as they fruit in pots on the terrace and growbags in the greenhouse. The tomato, pepper and the aubergine are year-round stalwarts in the supermarket, but their flavours are so particular to late summer that I try not to buy them, however seductive their colours, their blemish-free shiny symmetry and recipe potential. There is nothing so redolent of the season as the smell of home-grown, sun-ripened, misshapen tomatoes. A platter of mixed varieties with tiny plums and cherries, hearty beefsteaks, clustered vines, in carmines, scarlets, oranges and yellows, add a few ripe red peppers and shiny aubergines, and you have a perfect September still life. These treasures are not natives though, and need to be mollycoddled through the seasons to produce to their optimum. The Real Seed Catalogue (realseeds.co.uk) is run by gardeners Ben and Kate Gabel from their allotment in Wales. They concentrate on varieties that do well and taste great when grown by hand on a garden scale. They add: “Many are rare heirlooms, and because all are open pollinated, we give instructions on how to save your own seed in future. So there’s no need to buy new seed every year.” True gardening altruism. Because of our short summers, Ben and Kate suggest we grow a range of early bush tomatoes, originally from Russia and the United States, that germinate well in cold conditions, set fruit early, but are productive over a long period. They recommend Latah – fantastic flavour with balanced acid and sweetness, good raw or cooked; Legend Bush – good blight resistance with round, flavoursome fruits that will set without pollination; Grushovka – a shocking-pink plum type with excellent flavour, producing large quantities of fruit; Oregon Spring – a short bush with large round fruits; and Urbikany – an early round Siberian that is prolific and delicious raw. Bush tomatoes are easier to grow than vines because they need little staking, no pinching out and have short side shoots. These varieties are nonhybrid, so you can save your own seed. The Gabels suggest you squeeze the juice, pulp and seeds into a jar and leave to ferment for three days. The floating seeds are discarded from the fermenting mixture and the rest are rinsed in water in a sieve several times and dried on a plate. Detailed instructions are provided when you buy seeds. The Real Seed Catalogue also offers a range of early germinating peppers: mouthwatering Sweet Chocolate, Lipstick, Orange Bell, and Purple Beauty; and beautiful polished black aubergines, Ronde de Valence, Diamond and De Barbentane – all produce early delights over a long season. For my birthday lunch, I did a huge platter of mixed summer fruiting veg, some gleaned from my own slim pickings, some from the farmers’ market and some from Macknades, a local Italian food emporium. We grilled long red peppers and round aubergines with a little olive oil and salt on the fire bowl, then arranged them on a huge glass plate. I sliced fat red ribbed Costoluto Genovese tomatoes, halved tiny red and yellow cherries, and quartered purple plums and scattered them over the dish, then added a good mild crumbled feta cheese. Taking a couple of tablespoons of pesto, I slackened the mixture with olive oil and lemon juice and drizzled it over the platter, adding basil leaves from the garden. High summer on a plate. TOMATO TIPS Keep tomatoes out of the fridge. Under-ripe tomatoes will ripen in a brown paper bag in the fruit bowl. Sow seed by end of March on the surface of seed compost in a 9cm (3.5in) pot. Cover with vermiculite. Keep at 21C (70F) in a germinator or airing cupboard. Transfer plants to a heated greenhouse (18C/65F) or sunny windowsill. As the first flowers appear, pot on or plant in the greenhouse. In recent trials, Monty Don found that tomatoes grown in the ground produced better flavour than in pots or growbags. Pinch out growing tips now, so all the plants’ energy goes into flowers and fruit. Tomatoes are packed with vitamins, lycopene and antioxidants, lowering cholesterol and maintaining bone health. Pre-order your 2014 catalogue from realseeds.co.uk now for delivery in November.
Take your pick: unusual tomato varieties make for a perfect ‘still life’ platter