Confounded by a tomato


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.

Crawling babies, raspberries and white T shirts don’t go


Back from holiday and, no sooner had we got in the door than, obviously, I’m outside, bags unpacked in the hall, two small children running wild at my feet as I find myself tying in errant squashes, pinching out sideshoots of tomatoes and cutting back the vast jungle of foliage that has proliferated in my absence. So effective has my mother’s watering regime been that I’ve returned to the Lost Gardens of Heligan – before they found them.


To assuage the guilt that I’m largely ignoring the children as I teeter on a garden chair, secateurs and twine in hand, I pass them down blackberries, plums, tomatoes and raspberries which they cram into their mouths and smear over their white T-shirts as if they haven’t been fed for weeks, clearly forgetting the desperate Ryanair Pringles-fest of hours earlier – an attempt to stop mid-air tantrums and hence death stares from everyone else on the plane.  Within minutes it’s an orgy of fruit juice, sand and discarded prunings with children somewhere in among.


The toddler’s learned to feed himself, can strip a raspberry cane in seconds and has now largely learned not to eat the green tomatoes (anyone who’s thinking, how amazing, a toddler who loves fresh fruit should know that fresh fruit is all he eats. He has never eaten anything normal, like shepherd’s pie).  Speedy crawler baby, however, has a lot to learn – as I swoop down to remove half a rotten – proper rotten – windfall plum from his mouth I’m not sure whether I should get points for feeding my children home-grown produce or be reported to social services.


Never mind, look at this Red Kuri squash. It’s beautiful though I’m slightly scared of it because one day I’m going to have to eat it and have no idea how. Maybe if I leave it long enough I can just make it into a Halloween pumpkin.

August tips – neighbours, air miles and Sigourney Weaver


August is a weird month in the edible garden since all those precious crops you’ve been nurturing with the attention of a penguin standing on its egg are suddenly abandoned as we all zip off on Budgetair to eat beefsteak tomatoes grown by someone else. Go away in August and your beans, salad, courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, plums and sweetcorn are peaking all alone. This can be awkward and emotional for the edible gardener. Last year I  very nearly took a carrier bag of runner beans on a flight to France – until I realised it would count as air miles.

So think of your poor swelling, ripening, sweetening crops as you sun yourself in the Med gorging on fresh gazpacho. On the other hand, don’t. Watering is what neighbours and relatives are for. They’ll get you back later by making you feed their cats. And at least they get paid in produce – my mother is currently subsisting on a pure diet of Victoria plums. There are spas in the Home Counties that would charge you a fortune for that.

Meanwhile, for two and  a half weeks I’m eating french beans and Cuor di Bue tomatoes brought round by my gardening mentor, an elderly French woman called Madame Pech whose potager is an immaculate inspiration and who, despite being in her seventies, wields a fungicide backpack spray with all the conviction of Sigourney Weaver blasting extraterrestrial nasties.


If you do happen to be at home  or have rigged up trans continental CCTV for fear of missing big happenings in the veg patch, this is what you could be doing right now in the August edible garden…

What to sow now

Coriander, spinach and salad rocket can be sown direct into the soil – this Sarah Raven Guardian piece here has some useful info. Also it’s time to start thinking about winter lettuces – those dashes of green freshness that will keep you feeling virtuous come the dark days when all around is stodgy puddings and roast dinners. A salad of lettuce, rocket, oriental leaves and chicory with blue cheese and a decadent dressing laced with honey is one of my winter pleasures. Winter Density is a good crispy cos one.  Valdor is your classic round lettuce of the old British salad with half a hard-boiled egg and salad dressing variety – and very hardy. Merveille de Quatre Saisons shrugs off the cold. Either sow direct in a sunny spot and thin to a foot apart if you have room or in modules and transplant when they reach the five leaf stage.

Winter purslane is a brilliant salad plant – succulent scallop-shaped leaves with a citrusy crunch. Sow it now for winter. Do. Other things to get in now include corn salad (lamb’s lettuce or mache if you’ve just got back from Provence and are showing off). Mixed oriental salad leaves can be sown now too as can chicory – I only sow one – Rossa di Treviso – and pak choi for virtuous stir fries.

Kale is another one to think about now. Red Russian and Black Tuscan (Nero di Toscana) can be sown direct or in modules and then transplanted when the border reveals some gaps in a few weeks. My beds are so packed with marauding squashes, french beans and courgettes right now that little kale seedlings would be overwhelmed. But come October, when the beds empty day by day, I’m always so grateful for kales, filling the gaps, growing bigger daily even when the winter weather throws all it can at them. A Black Tuscan kale, its dark crepey leaves etched with frost on a winter’s morning is a stunning sight.


Alternatively, cheat! I ordered an entire winter vegetable garden online the other day from Rocket. I’m not ashamed! It’s one thing keeping growbags and big pots going when you’re away, quite another sustaining tiny seedlings of salad, oriental leaves and kale in plug trays. It’ll arrive in September and I’ll pop all the plants straight into the soil – though on the downside this obviously means I can’t go out – even to the shops – for the entire month for fear of the postman leaving one of those cards and taking it back to the depo.

Other things to do

If you’re growing trained apple and pear trees, now’s the time to summer prune them. This shows how. If you’re growing grapes, remove leaves shading bunches to encourage them to ripen. This is my Brandt grapevine’s 3rd year and it’s finally got the memo about actually producing grapes  – I can’t quite get over how exciting this is and keep taking photographs and marvelling at them – behold, actual grapes, in an actual bunch. (Whether they actually ripen to anything more sumptuous than pips in grapeskin is another matter.)


Keep weeding. Keep watering. Keep feeding. But, most importantly. Eat, eat eat! What’s the point of all this if you don’t take the time to sit back and stuff your face with raspberries, strawberries, snappingly fresh beans, and melting fleshed plums. Even if it’s not you doing it cos you’re in the South of France. I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me.

Take two garlics into the shower?

Just when everything was going so well in my perennial quest for Marie Antoinette -style self-sufficiency… I’m not exactly shampooing cattle, but there is something about the sight of a rustic wigwam draped with just-dug garlic that warms the soul. And yet, no sooner had I dug up my Solent Wight and hung it out to ‘cure’ when the English July did its usual thing and started raining. If garlic doesn’t dry properly, it won’t keep and what’s the point of buying the longest-lasting garlic variety if you’re chopping spongey, rotten bulbs come autumn?


This man seems to know what he’s talking about when it comes to harvesting garlic, though it does all sound a bit complicated. Usually I just hang it up on the pergola for a week or so and then move it into the kitchen where I hang it up in a loose bunch (never could plait) where everyone hits their head on it when they bend down for a bottle of wine.

Heading out of town for the weekend, with more rain forecast and no convenient barn with drying racks to immediate hand, I dump my precious bulbs in the shower where they look less like a charming Mediterranean scene and more like something you’d see crawling out of your plughole had you gone to bed after eating a large Stilton.


Much as I love garlic, the smell of 40 or so heads of the stuff mingling with Tresemme quickly loses its novelty value. They have now been stuffed into the few inches of greenhouse not currently colonised by the triffid Costuluto Fiorentina tomatoes where they will remain until these unpredictable showers stop. This is yet another reason why I should be living in Provence, or at the very least a show farm in Versailles.

Bolted lettuce? Don’t panic, make soup. Just not this one…


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…