I like to think I’m a woman of the world. I can make crackling. I’m on series 3 of The Wire. But rarely has something confounded and perplexed me so much as the Black Krim tomato. I bought these seeds from Sarah Raven for purely showing-off purposes – the same reason I grow yellow dwarf French beans (Rocquencourt – actually very delicious and prolific, one for next year), stripy beetroot and blue potatoes (Vitelotte, utter disaster, ants would have struggled to see them).
But I didn’t realise growing ‘black’ tomatoes would be so complicated. It’s not the actual growing – they couldn’t be easier, romping away in grow bags with ne’er a care, producing vast tomatoes, even if most of them have got corky bases that need cutting off. It’s the conundrum of when to pick the things. Do you wait until they’re proper black? Reddish black? Or greenish reddy black with green shoulders? It’s a colour chart minefield worthy of a Farrow and Ball paint shade, and certainly not one for the colour blind.
I haven’t had such harvesting anxiety since I managed to grow two whole sweetcorns and spent so long jabbing my fingernails into them to test whether the kernel juices ran milky, clear or pasty (ah, the charming language of sweetcorn harvest) that I missed the critical moment altogether and might as well bought them from the supermarket and left them in the bottom of the fridge for a week.
So far, I have picked reddish blackish ones without green shoulders and found them a bit mealy. And ones with green shoulders and found them not ripe enough. They all taste strangely salty and the blackish flesh inside also has something of the compost bin about it. But then yesterday, a revelation, one that was sweetness itself. Trouble is I can’t remember what it looked like before I chopped it up in my pasta.
My extensive research (10 minutes on Google) reveals that the worldwide gardening community is divided on the Black Krim subject. This person’s positively fervent about them. ‘Dark brownish red tomatoes with darker gel in the locules. They look almost rotten, but have a wonderful smokey/sweet taste totally unique to the variety, ‘ says another fan, not entirely convincingly. One advises that you have to pick them before they are ripe though doesn’t say how you identify this critical moment. This blog has a helpful picture. Or maybe it would be easier just to give up on them like this cross gentleman from Texas.
There’s nothing for it, Sarah Raven is going to have to come round to my house and supervise.
It seems to happen overnight… one day the lettuce is growing outwards in the happy hope of turning into something big and round, the next it’s shooting to the heavens in a tower reminiscent of a Japanese pagoda. These ones hadn’t so much as bolted as moved country and changed their names by deed poll.
Bolting, the formation of a flowering stalk, can either happen in lettuces when they are left too long and are beginning their natural seed-forming process, or when they have had a shock in their little lives. I think I left these – a green oakleaf – in their plug cells a bit too long where they probably got thirsty. Anyway, whatever the reason, the things have gone skyward before going sufficiently outward and we all know raw bolted lettuce is a horrible thing – a bitter-tasting beast not worthy of a decent salad, however deceptively pretty the leaves might look in a salad spinner.
So what to do? Make soup of course. I chose the first one I came across on Google, which was a bit of a mistake, since the end result was an innocuous poor man’s version of leek and potato soup made with a disconcerting quantity of milk.
Diana Henry’s looks far more appetising, as does this and this Hugh F-W one…
I’m now willing the rest of my lettuces to bolt so I can try them out…
Take three blackcurrant bushes, a toddler and a woman with that slightly maniacal ‘I’m going to do something FUN with the kids today’ enthusiasm that is best acted on in the morning before it wilts to ‘Let’s see who’s playing at Wimbledon’ apathy by midday.
I’ve never considered myself the sort of person who would make my own ice lollies. God forbid. But then I had children. It’s weird how little projects like this become feasible when you’re trying to entertain a two and a half year old who will otherwise launch himself off a large garden beanbag onto a willow obelisk.
My three extremely scrubby blackcurrant bushes, planted in a dry, shady and overcrowded part of the garden, have always been a bit of a disaster. Their annual crop would fit in a shoe. But luckily, that’s all you need to make five ice lollies. Lakeland provided the moulds, and this recipe seemed adequately idiot-proof.
So we picked them…
Then simmered them for a bit with sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice…
Poured them into the moulds…
And then realised they didn’t fit in the freezer…
But they did fit in my neighbour’s freezer.
Four hours later and small child is transported to blackcurrant lolly heaven.
Obviously I ate the other four.
Note to self, when making summer pudding from your precious homegrown redcurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries and strawberries, don’t buy thick ready sliced bread and squish it down hard in the bowl first.
It will form a layer impermeable to all known substances, particularly berry juice, prove impossible to chew, let alone digest, and decompose sometime in the next millennium. On the plus side, I think I might have found something to regrout the bathroom.
Last weekend. Paris. Too lazy even to open a guide book, I and my friend (a fellow mother of small children – ie punch drunk with exhaustion and a need for essential oils, complimentary shower caps and an evening in front of the Eurovision Song Contest) asked at the hotel front desk for a restaurant recommendation.
This is risky. The second night, we hit dross with La Rotonde where I felt like we’d wandered into that Victoria Wood sketch where the waiter looms leeringly over two sunburnt female holidaymakers with a giant pepper grinder – ‘More pepper, ladies’ – flirting patronisingly in search of a tip, which obviously being British and terrified of offending, we gave anyway. But the first night we hit gold with Le Timbre, a tres intime little place who’s English chef (I know, alarm bells did initially ring) wowed us with the usual French fare of snails and duck, but most importantly a fillet of cod on a bed of succulent broad beans of the brightest emerald, coaxed to perfection with a smattering of lardons.
We strolled through the Jardins du Luxembourg, wondered why Parisians in the 6th arrondisement need so many children’s clothes shops when, by the looks of it, there have no actual children, and marvelled at how very French France is (queues outside patisseries! old women looking like Brigitte Bardot! little dogs! little dog shit!).
But, safely returned on the Eurostar, it’s those broad beans that I keep thinking about. This is because I have very little capacity for high culture and a very high capacity for food. However pretty the Georges Pompidou Centre is, you can’t eat it. But mainly it’s because the broad beans in my garden are just about ready to pick and the bar has now been well and truly raised. So how do I recreate that perfect broad bean dish?
Does one steam them or boil? Obviously you have to pop them out of their grey pods to avoid wading through a dish of saddlebags, but when? What oil do you use? What bacon? What herbs? Do they need lemon juice? The questions are endless, I need answers…
Last year I wrote a Sunday Telegraph column about how my Autumn Bliss raspberries tasted really disappointing – ‘like diluted fruit squash wrapped in cellulose’ – prompting a Mr Chris Stephens to email in defence of their taste, adding, incidentally, that ‘Your description of the 2007 as “the great raspberry washout” is way over the top and typical of today’s media’. Obviously, he’s right about the last bit (I rather like being ‘typical of today’s media’, as though talking about my raspberries is akin to exaggerating global warming), but it turns out he might be right about the taste too.
So there I’d been kicking along thinking home-grown British strawberries, raspberries and blueberries weren’t quite as sweet as those you could buy in the shops, and it turns out there was a simple explanation. I’ve been picking them too soon.
My partner has been wise to this habit for some time, barricading the secateurs in a locked box and clutching the salad spinner at my approach as if it were a small child in the encroaching shadow of a military tank. But I just can’t help myself. Even after five years of this growing your own lark, I get so excited that anything’s actually grown (which to be fair, it rarely has) that I snip any fruit off the minute it turns from green to… any colour at all.
Thwarted in my hasty culling by the fact I’ve been hundreds of miles away on holiday for the past two weeks, the raspberries and blueberries had actually been allowed to ripen properly. And, a revelation, it turns out they’re absolutely blooming amazingly sweet and fantastic. Very probably the finest thing man has ever eaten. It’s the great raspberry and blueberry bonanza of 2008!! And obviously I would never exaggerate.
At the risk of sounding like a cover headline in Kitchen Garden magazine – and, if they’re looking for a new sub, I’ve got plenty left up my sleeve, honest: ‘Beet that!’ ‘Bean there done that!’ and my personal favourite, ‘Show me the way to Tomatillo!’ (in Kitchen Garden magazine the exclamation marks are compulsory) – and/or winning a competition for the dullest photo ever posted on the interweb, I thought I had to bring you my entire shallot harvest in all its glory.
If you look very closely you can see that one of the bulbs is normal sized.
Since making a meal out of them is clearly over-ambitious, I think I might try making a scary necklace out of them – like that man did in the 1970s Chinese TV show Monkey. His were skulls though so, in truth, quite a bit scarier.
Never made a summer pudding before, but when you’ve got a total crop of 13 redcurrants, 2 blueberries, 6 ripe blackcurrants, five ripe raspberries and a whole ton of strawberries, it’s the obvious option. Seems like a traditional summer pudding doesn’t use strawberries at all, but I cobbled together various recipes from the internet – mainly using delia’s – and the sky didn’t fall in.
The key is to simmer the currants and blueberries for about five minutes and only add the softer fruit – the strawberries and raspberries – a few minutes from the end.
I’m always amazed when I follow a recipe and the result is edible. It’s also nice when growing fruit and vegetables in a garden 45×15 foot actually results in a proper dish – which turned out to be absolutely delicious of course (when are you ever going to hear a home-grown person saying otherwise?) – as opposed to barefoot dressing-gown snacking. And I picked sweetpeas today and put them in an actual vase. Oh God, I’m turning into Martha Stewart. I’m sure at one stage I used to have a life, with a desk and a social life and lunch at Pret a Manger. I blame childcare.
Sometimes I wish I was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Not the way he shouts at the camera all the time, or his obsession with making vegetarians eat offal (‘Faint at the sight of a beefburger? Here’s some lamb’s lungs’) , but the way he knows what to Do with things. He’d know exactly what to do with this Early Wight garlic that I just dug up. Early excitement at its pretty purpleness and lovely smell turned to slight panic when I read that it’s a ‘hardneck’ variety, or ‘wet’ garlic that is supposed to be eaten fresh, not stored like the ‘softneck’ kinds. I have 13 bulbs to get through and the clock is ticking… Should I be roasting? soup-making? eating it raw? Recipe suggestions please, or at the very least, recommendations for a good book since I obviously won’t be going out into polite company for several weeks…
Concerned reader(s) will be relieved to know that my potato pique has subsided in the face of saturated fats. In other words, I’ve just eaten a bowl of strawberries and raspberries with double cream, straight from the garden, natch. Yesterday it was rhubarb with redcurrants (I don’t need to mention the cream again, it’s obviously compulsory.) Sometimes it all seems so very worth it. Only one thing. You know when you see a strawberry and think, that looks lovely but maybe I’ll give it one more day and it will be absolutely ripe and the most perfect thing ever? How do the little black slugs, who have totally ignored them until now, know that that is the very night to drill holes in them? Uncanny.