We grow a lot of tomatoes. Friends visiting our vege garden for the first time comment, "That's a lot of tomatoes," eyes widening at the 3 x 4m patch. It is not a large crop by commercial growers' standards, but for the average domestic grower, it's a fair size. The reason we grow so many tomatoes is we enjoy preserving them, a passata of sorts, ready to break the seal of the Fowlers preserving lid to add flavour to slow cooked casseroles, pasta sauces, meat balls and more. Duncan teases that he could just go to the nearest supermarket and buy tinned tomatoes for less than $1/can. I protest, our cooking wouldn't taste the same.
We have experimented with different tomato varieties, but Romas and San Marzano give us the best yield. And rather than fuss with supporting the vines on timber tomato stakes, we let the tumble along the ground and grow where they are happiest. It makes the picking a little more difficult, like an Easter egg hunt, but it works for us with less wind damaged vines and the branches able to put down rootlets where they touch the ground. We start picking when the first tomatoes start to blush red, adding them daily to salads, omelettes, and bruschetta. It is the smell of late summer, the pungent scent of tomato vines and neighbouring basil and coriander plants.
When the bulk of the vines are fruiting we pick all the ripe tomatoes and plan a preserving day. Duncan sets up an outdoor kitchen in the car port or garage and dedicates a day to the task. Over nearly 20 years we have accumulated more glass Fowlers preserving jars than we will ever use; from clearing sales and gifts from friends finished with preserving. Before preserving we gather all the equipment; two Fowlers preserving boilers, chopping boards, knives, tubs for washing, a gas camping stove for boiling water, maslin pan, ladle, funnel, jars, lids and clips. We slice off the top of the tomatoes and place batches in a pot of boiling water, then cold water. Our youngest son enjoys squeezing the tomato flesh from the skins, but unfortunately we can't hold his attention for long. Some harvests are better than others. We still had three bottles of passata from the 2015 harvest when we bottled the 2016 crop, which unfortunately probably won't last long past winter because it was such a harsh hot, dry February.
Duncan uses a hybrid recipe, part Fowlers preserving advice and part yellowed tear out saved from The Sydney Morning Herald Good Living, 'Preservation society', March 25, 2003. We end up with a cross between passata and whole peeled tomatoes.
Top the tomatoes and scald in boiling water until the skin loosens, then place in cold water to quickly cool. Pop the fruit out of it's skin into a large stockpot or maslin pan to simmer for an hour or so. Although we have a tomato machine we don't process the tomatoes to remove the seeds and create a pulp. Add about 2 teaspoons of salt and a good handful of basil leaves per kilo of fruit, stir and simmer for a further 15 minutes or so. We put approximately 2 teaspoons of lemon juice per 500ml of mixture in each thoroughly washed preserving jar before the mixture goes in to further acidify it. Follow the advice of whatever preserving unit you are using to seal your jars but a good rule of thumb is at least 90 minutes simmering with about an inch of water over the top of the jar.
After the big harvest for preserving, the remaining green tomatoes continue to ripen. It is a matter of timing before we judge when to pick the remaining ripe and green tomatoes before the first frost turns the lot to mush.
I like to make homemade tomato sauce (recipe here) from the remaining ripe tomatoes and green tomato relish and chutney with the green tomatoes. Sally Wise's A Year on The Farm and Matthew Evans' Not Just Jam are a good source of green tomato recipes. My green tomato relish even has a following...of one. Coincidentally my green tomato relish fan, Dean visited the store and asked Duncan if I'd made any. Duncan said, "Dean, I think she's making a batch right now."