My tomatoes have blight. Two weeks ago, it was merely the odd brown leaf, and I looked proudly at them and considered them rustic and French potager-like. But in the last few days I have had to face facts: they are blighted, benighted and frankly buggered.
Happily, I am not the only sufferer. It’s the first year I’ve grown them in the ground, since up to last August my garden was roughly the size of the average sofa, and everything was in pots and growbags. I feared it was a novice gardener thing, but apparently our passive aggressive allotment-owning neighbour has lost all of his tomatoes too, so all is well with the world. I’ve ripped out the vines, lamented over the vast, squishy, brown ex-crop and, in a spirit of blight defiance, stripped off all the green tomatoes which remain unaffected. I really hate waste. I had vaguely planned a green tomato chutney, but it seemed far too obvious. Plus, I have only just finished the divine, but incredibly rich 1870s chutney from three years ago, and I have three jars of various homemade chutneys people have given me. All lovely, I’m sure, but how much chutney does a girl need? Obligatory with a cayenne-laden Victorian kedgeree, good with a meat chop or a cold pie, but after that… Mouldy chutney beckons once again. So, given a recent mild obsession with a particular type of Scandinavian pickle, it seemed obvious that pickled tomatoes was the way to go.
Pickled veg seems peculiarly un-British in 2014. Branston, yes, pickled things, yes (onions, eggs, gherkins, beetroot – bring it on), but beyond that, the habitual use of pickled veg (and fruit) seems a bit Scandinavian, or maybe Japanese. Fermenting, salting, brining, pickling, all techniques which we’re turning it enthusiastically, if the food press is to be believed, but when it comes to using the results, are a little but harder to place. I’ve gone back to the 18th century, when pickling the various gluts from the garden (and hedgerow) was a normal part of the culinary year, and I’ve started using pickled bits of stuff as a general accompaniment to pretty much everything. A typical lunch at the moment would be a poached egg, some beans or rye bread, chopped parsley and oodles of pickles. For the tomatoes, I dug out a recipe from 1924, from Warne’s Model Cookery. No point in looking much further back than the mid 19th century, for tomatoes weren’t widely grown until the Victorian period, and early recipes tend to revolve around ‘tomata sauce’, or catsup.
All you do is slice and salt, then cook the tomatoes up with pickling vinegar, sugar, garlic, chilli, mustard and cloves. They retain a certain amount of texture, and they take on flavour from the spices. The tartness of the green tomatoes cuts through the sugar, and the spices pack a fairly hefty punch, compared to some of the anaemic shop-bought pickles around today. They are much better than a chutney would have been, and I confidently predict that they won’t be around for long. I’d have loved to keep my lovely tomato plants cropping and bursting with health, but it was not to be. I feel this is a suitable elegy to the heap of sorry brown badness now in the council’s green bin. RIP, tomato plants.