Italian plum tomatoes – the best for cooking

I know I’ve said it before, still, it’ll bear repeating, that as I grow older I find I enjoy my food more and more. But it’s not about clever cheffy sauces and fancy restaurant-style cuisine. I leave that to you city dwellers, where real food is hard to come by. No, I like cooking (or more to the point, Maisie’s cooking), not cuisine, and I passionately care about good, fresh, healthy ingredients. If you’re working with supermarket broccoli you can dress it up with anything you care to mention, but it’ll still taste of green water. But having allowed myself that little tirade, I should add that there are exceptions to my ‘fresh’ rule, such as home-made jams, pickles and preserves. We also do a range of dried things, mostly beans (Cannellini and Borlotti) and occasionally fungi, but our three big freezers are the way we deal with those gluts that are a part of vegetable-gardening. So this year we’ve frozen bags of (blanched) green peas and broad beans and these are infinitely better than the peas from Mr. Birds Beak and other commercial freezers.

The other veg we freeze in bulk are tomatoes, which we simply place in bags when very ripe (slightly under-ripe and they thaw-out to an unappetising pinkish colour). We grow standard round red tomatoes, Gardener’s Delight, for salads and another maincrop variety (which changes from year to year) for early cookers. These are grown under glass and start cropping in late June/early July. Meanwhile out in the vegetable garden, I grow a row (12 plants) of San Marzano, Italian plum tomatoes. Last year it was so wet and cold that the entire crop succumbed to blight. But that’s the only year in the past four decades that that’s happened. And this year promises a bumper yield.

Plum tomatoes get their name from their shape, and they grow on bushes where you don’t pinch-out the side-shoots that appear at the base of the leaf stalks. This results in dense green bushes. In Italy the heat of the sun and the dryness of autumn naturally causes the leaves to shrink and the tomatoes to ripen, but in England that doesn’t happen: the leaves and young shoots stay green and lush, so the large fruits produced early in the year (and lying deep within the bush), don’t ripen, and worse, they rot – and the rot spreads. So I’ve taken to doing nature’s job for her. I remove all leaves and shoots along one side of the row, and lift the tomatoes off the ground, using canes and metal cloche-arches. It’s a long job (took 3 days this year), but it’s well worth it. On the other side of the row I remove most of the leaves and shoots and do my best to raise the lower fruit off the ground, using empty plastic flower pots. I also chuck away any rotten fruit, but I accept that this side will be far less productive than the other; having said that, the leaves that I’ve left do provide the plant with the energy it needs to enlarge smaller tomatoes.

Plum tomatoes are particularly good for cooking because they are not over-juicy and you don’t need to reduce (i.e. boil) sauces too much – a process that inevitably removes subtlety of flavour. If all goes well and the autumn remains fine, we’ll be handing jars of home-made ketchup to our friends at Christmas. And the flavour! Makes all the work seem worthwhile.

Plum tomatoes un-pruned

This year’s row of San Marzano plum tomatoes, before removal of surplus shoots and leaves.

The same row, after pruning.

The same row, after pruning.

Close-up of ripening plum tomatoes.

Close-up of ripening plum tomatoes.

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