Early greenhouse frenzies of sowing tomatoes, pricking them out, and then balancing their increasingly contradictory needs for space and warmth seem a distant memory now. That was what it took to get them started, but now that they have found their feet my tomato gardening has taken a distinctly laissez faire (if not plain lazy) turn. Amazingly this doesn’t seem to have done the tomatoes any harm at all, despite their diva-ish reputation. I have been away for a week, laid up with tonsillitis for nearly another, and yet when I finally slunk up to the allotment this afternoon to sheepishly check on them I found that the tomatoes are thriving. I can put this down to two things: lots of manure, and an earlier period of neglect. When the tomatoes were planted – into a newly manured polytunnel border, I believe I left them alone just long enough to force their roots to spread and reach out into the moisture-retentive stuff, searching for reserves of moisture, but not quite long enough that they died. This is clearly not an approach I can recommend: an extra day of neglect here or there, or a spell of hotter weather, and they would be goners, and I doubt I would be able to repeat such finely balanced neglect with such success (though precedent suggests that I’ll certainly give it a shot). But this time I got lucky, and I have a beautiful crop of ripe and ripening tomatoes to play with.
And right now I have too many, and so a glut-suitable recipe is called for. I have only been to Italy once and it is fitting that my most memorable tomato memory is from that visit. I was staying with some friends in their little hilltop farmhouse in Tuscany and sat in the kitchen as one of them made dinner. He took the most beautifully ripe beefsteak tomatoes (about 750g – i’ll give you the recipe as we go along to save repetition, though should stress that these are my own measurements from subsequent attempts when back home, and not the authentic version), cut them in half, carefully removed the hard cores, then roughly chopped them up and put them in a bowl. Then he added extra virgin olive oil (around 3 tablespoons), salt (1 teaspoon), pepper, garlic (1 clove, sliced), and a splash of red wine vinegar. The bowl was then covered and left to sit for several hours, during which time the juices from the tomatoes were drawn out by the salt to mingle with the oil and vinegar, and the flesh of the tomatoes gradually softened. When we were ready to eat ripped some basil leaves into the bowl, boiled some pasta (about 400g tagliatelle for four people), poured the drained pasta into the bowl with a splash of the pasta water, mixed it into the juices and the tomatoes until the mushy tomatoes clung to the pasta here and there, and served it topped with a little more extra virgin olive oil and some grated parmesan. It was one of the most delicious things I had ever eaten and one of those rare dishes that live on in your mind for years. It’s possible the Tuscan hilltop and the lazy watching of the whole process from start to finish enhanced its status, but either way, it’s a lovely thing.
Although I love this recipe, most of the year I don’t even think to make it. Being so dependent on really excellent, beautifully ripe tomatoes it just doesn’t seem worth making with supermarket ones. It’s a recipe that is always inspired by the start of the tomato harvest, and I will use it now and for the next month, and then put away until this time next year. This is August in a bowl, as far as I’m concerned.