One of the benefits of working from home in Somerset this year is the time we have gained to harvest. Previously, there has always been a disheartening moment in late summer when it becomes apparent that there simply aren’t enough hours to get everything in the kitchen garden gathered, processed and stored away for winter. In the past, to dispel the phantom of wastage, we have managed this in a number of ways. Firstly, by inviting friends down for harvesting and preserving weekends – which has clearly not been possible this year – giving away the surplus to neighbours or leaving it out for passers-by or, finally, satisfying ourselves with the knowledge that what we can’t eat will be gladly seized upon by birds, rodents, insects and gastropods.
Though we blanched and froze enough French beans, broad beans and cauliflower to provide for us through the winter, it quickly became apparent that our harvest of soft and stone fruit would soon fill both freezers. Knowing that when everything else started to come on stream the question of what to do with it all would present itself, I prepared myself by reading Piers Warren’s How to Store Your Garden Produce and its American equivalent, Keeping the Harvest by Nancy Chioffi and Gretchen Mead. Both books give detailed instructions on how to freeze, salt, dry, bottle, ferment, pickle and preserve any fruit or vegetable you care to name.
My primary concern was for the tomatoes, of which we had a lot and of which I was determined to ensure not a single one was wasted. The idea of having our own supply of tinned tomatoes and passata – some of the few things I still buy from a grocer or supermarket – led to a frenzy of bottling in August, and the pantry shelves soon groaned with jars of whole and chopped plum tomatoes and bottles of passata. In Italy what I produced would strictly be called tomato sauce, as I learned that true passata is actually raw, with whole tomatoes being put through a passa pomodoro (tomato mill) that separates the skin and seeds from the pulp. The raw pulp is then put into sterilised bottles, the only cooking being from the time spent in the sterilising water bath required to preserve them.
I cooked the tomatoes and simmered them until there was no excess water content before passing through a mouli-légumes and then bottling with a dash of salt and citric acid to aid preservation. A late summer glut of cherry tomatoes resulted in a further 5 kilos of bottled, whole tomatoes, as well as several litres of yellow tomato ketchup, made using an adapted recipe from Kylee Newton’s The Modern Preserver.
In anticipation of this year’s bumper harvests, in May I had decided to invest in a dehydrator. When I could see that space in the pantry was soon going to run short it came into its own. For several weeks in late August and September it saw an almost permanent relay of pears, plums, blackcurrants and raspberries, but mostly many kilos of tomatoes. The benefit of drying, of course, is that the resulting produce takes up less space. It is also much lighter to store and concentrates the flavour, so a little goes much further when you come to cook with them. Most of the dried tomatoes are stored in an airtight bucket with a lid, but I have also preserved some under oil with bay, thyme and garlic cloves, to eat as savoury snacks or used to enrich other dishes.
The last of the tomato preserves came about more from necessity than design. I was completely out of shelf space in the pantry and yet there were still kilos coming up from the polytunnel. So, having gone through the same initial process as for the ‘passata’, the resulting sauce was reduced over a low heat until thick enough to spread out on greaseproof paper and put into the dehydrator. By the end of the next day I had enough small jars of tomato concentrate to see me through a winter of casseroles, soups and sauces.
It was just last weekend that we harvested the very last of the tomatoes from which we made about 5 litres of tomato soup. Given heat by the addition of some chilis also grown under cover this year, it warmed us through a whole week of sunny but chilly outdoor lunches. The thing that really makes me glow, though, is the prospect of opening a jar of my own plum tomatoes in January or February and bringing a memory of summer’s richness to the depth of winter.
Words & photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 14 November 2020