Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

Tomato and Chilli Ripening

By anyone’s measuring, this has been a rubbish year for chillies, tomatoes, aubergines, and all things Mediterranean in temperament, even if you have had the luxury of a greenhouse in which to grow them. A greenhouse or polytunnel magnifies the warmth of summer, but if the summer doesn’t have much in the way of warmth then it can’t work miracles, and I have been left with more green fruits than usual, despite our late flirtation with an Indian summer.

From here on in the weather will start to cool fairly rapidly, and it is time to admit that it is over, and to hope for a better run in the polytunnel next year. Such is the way for us gardeners: hope over experience every time.

I have had a few aubergines, but nothing on last year’s glut, and the smaller tomatoes have done ok. But plenty of the tomatoes are still green, as are many of the chillies. My plan is threefold: some are going to be cut down from their polytunnel home, stalks and all, and hung in this state from the rafters of the greenhouse in the garden. At this time of year I feel the greenhouse is slightly warmer, maybe only by a degree or two, but it might make the difference.

It gets more sun than usual as the leaves on nearby trees drop, and is sheltered from the blasts of the cold wind that beset the allotment. I am also going to try some chillies and tomatoes in a dark drawer, which I have had good success with in the past: pop them into paper bags and then into drawers and leave them to it, checking every week or so in case any develop moulds.

Tomato and chilli chutney
Tomato and chilli chutney

Unripe fruits can sometimes ripen more successfully in the dark than out in the sun, simply because sunlight causes the fruits’ skins to harden. My third idea is to cook them as they are. In the case of tomatoes this simply means cooking them: fried green tomatoes and green tomato chutney are the first ports of call but you can also make green tomato sauces and tarts.

As long as they are cooked, they are good, less sweet than when ripe, but good and vegetable in taste with an enjoyable sourness. Chillies can essentially be eaten at any stage, it is simple that they become hotter and their flavours more rounded as they ripen, so you take your pick. But they too can be ripened in the greenhouse or indoors too.

We always make a tomato and chilli chutney with our crop, to be dolloped onto baked potatoes or stirred into chilli con carne over winter, and its heat tells the story of the year’s weather as well as any fine wine’s vintage does. Last year’s chutney was fiery and fierce, this year’s will be gentler and more vegetable in taste. But each is good, and each has its place.

  • 1.5kg tomatoes, blanched and peeled
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 8 medium chillies, deseeded and chopped (or more if small)
  • 450g caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 300ml malt vinegar

Roughly chop the tomatoes and scoop them, juices and all, into a large pan. Add all of the other ingredients bar the vinegar and cook on a slow simmer for one and a half hours. Add the vinegar, bring to the boil again and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the mixture is jammy and you can briefly draw a line across the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Pour into sterilised jars and seal while still warm, and label with your chutney’s vintage when cool.