Green tomatoes

After a couple of cold nights earlier in the week it didn’t seem as though any tomatoes left on the plant would ripen. We picked the few that were left and I made green tomato and paprika jam with them to use as a spicy addition to goats’ cheeses….or anything else. And then, just as we thought we’d finished with tomatoes for the year, a friend gave us a basketful of his green tomatoes. We picked out the best ones and put them in a box with a few red tomatoes – we’ve done this before and it does work, the green tomatoes ripen indoors although they don’t taste quite as nice as fresh ones.

There were about 2 kilos of tomatoes left so I decided to make some more green tomato jam, this time without the added piment d’Espelette. I roughly chopped the tomatoes and added a finely chopped whole lemon and the same weight of sugar – 2 kilos. I mixed it all together in a large pan and left it for a couple of hours.

While I was waiting for the sugar to draw out the liquid from the tomatoes we went for a trip around the hills through Montesquieu and Fos. It was like spring – sunny, 17°C with a light breeze. It didn’t look like spring, though, because the vines are changing colour. This year we’re not seeing the beautiful autumn colours we usually see, though, for some reason. The vines seem to be turning from green to dingy brown to threadbare quite quickly.

But we saw wild olives ripening:

A bright mazet (vine grower’s shelter) in a vineyard:

and another mazet higher up in the hills sheltered by chestnut trees:

There were bees buzzing around the wild mint at the side of the road and around (and above) this arbutus bush:

And at last, on the way home, we saw a vineyard in proper autumn colours!

Then it was home to cook the jam, bringing it to the boil and simmering for an hour or so until it reached setting point (when a spoonful put onto a saucer sets with a wrinkled surface), whizzing it with a hand-held liquidiser half way through the cooking and then bottling it, using Lo Jardinièr’s nice Catalan jam funnel.

So that’s my recipe for green tomato jam: 2 kilos of green tomatoes, 2 kilos of sugar, I lemon and a morning out in the countryside!

And for lunch, while the jam was simmering, we ate some ripe tomatoes given to us by another friend, made into a cool-weather version of tomato and mozzarella salad. I cut the tomatoes in half and put slices of garlic into each half, added some wild thyme we’d picked while we were out, salt, pepper and olive oil and put a slice of mozarella on each half. I put them in the oven at 200°C for about half an hour and they were read to eat, garlicky, thyme-flavoured and oozing melted cheese.

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Valencia market

While we were in Valencia we stayed in an apartment just 50 metres from the mercat central, the main market hall for the city. It was a fantastic place to wander around and to buy food.

Some of the stalls where I couldn’t resist buying included this wonderful one selling olives and pickled vegetables.

Notice the almagro aubergines just right of centre above? There’ll be more about these at the end of this post.  There were huge sacks of paprika from Murcia:

beautiful tomatoes (we saved some seeds from this variety so we hope to grow them next year)

There were snails – I didn’t buy any of these.

and herbs

and a few cured hams:

A lot of pumpkins, raw and already roasted – more about these in a later post.

We bought a lot of ready made charcuterie, olives and pickled vegetables to take back to our apartment for supper (on the nights when we weren’t going out to some of the many tapas bars nearby), but I only actually cooked one dish while we were there and that was with almagro aubergines. I’d seen them at the pickled vegetable stall but then a few minutes later saw a stall holder arranging fresh ones from a sack to display on her stall. I just had to buy some – they looked so beautiful.

I invented a dish based on what I’d seen on the stall and a quick internet search, leaving the aubergines with their stalks as they are here, cutting a slit in the ‘fat’ end and putting half a clove of garlic and a piece of red pepper into it. I then laid them all on a bed of sliced tomato in an oven-proof dish, added salt and pepper and poured a lot of olive oil over them. I put them in a slow oven for about an hour and a half while we went out for drinks in a nearby bar. I had Agua de Valencia, a mix of fresh orange juice, Cava and vodka – tasty and quite potent!

When we came back the aubergines were cooked and they were ready to eat.  The ones we didn’t eat straight away tasted even better cold the next day.

Still summer, or nearly autumn?

After a violent thunderstorm the night before last the hot, muggy weather that everyone was complaining about has been replaced by cooler nights, fresher air and a strong wind….that we’re now complaining about! In the garden the tomato plants are nearly over and the remaining fruit are being attacked by bugs of all colours and strips….and spots as well. We’ll pull them up and burn them soon – we have plenty of preserved tomato purée to keep us in sauces until next summer. The peppers plants continue to thrive and are laden with ripening fruit, so that almost every meal we eat contains some delicious variation on a pepper theme – today’s lunch was a stir fry of chicken pieces, peppers and red onions – and some of the red peppers are in the freezer waiting to brighten up a cold winter day.

The aubergine plants seemed exhausted a week or so ago, but now are starting on a second crop, with flowers and nice fat aubergines on the same plants:

Ready to eat – the autumn crop of figs

This morning we picked figs from a friend’s tree and one or two more from wild trees we passed while we were out. They’re perfect for eating as they are.

And I hardly dare hope for the olives – although last year’s crop was badly attacked by olive fly, we haven’t treated our trees with preventive chemicals as they are too close to the vegetable plots to be sure to avoid contamination. So we’re just keeping our fingers crossed that these olives will survive and ripen:

Clams with squid ink pasta

These palourdes – clams – brought to our village by the producer straight from the Etang de Thau at Bouzigues are my favourite shell fish. Sweet and fresh, they are delicious cooked simply in their own juices, some olive oil and chopped parsley. Today though we had the happy coincidence of some black squid ink pasta and an abundance of tomatoes from the garden sharing space in our kitchen and asking to be added to the clams.

While the pasta was cooking, I lightly fried a sliced red pepper (fresh from the garden) with a large chopped garlic clove in some olive oil in a deep frying pan.  When the pepper had softened I added the cleaned clams and put the lid on until they began to open.  When they had all opened I added three skinned and chopped tomatoes, some chopped parsley and another chopped clove of garlic and brought it all to the boil again while I drained the pasta.

I mixed the clams and sauce into the pasta and served it all with a glass of red wine for me and a glass of rosé for Lo Jardinièr who declared this the best pasta dish he’d eaten since we were in Catalunya last year and enjoyed rossejat de fideos.

Conserving summer

Every year since I started writing a food and gardening blog I have posted photos and descriptions of the different methods we use to preserve the huge numbers of tomatoes we grow.  Recipes vary depending on our mood and the time we have available, but in my view the magic never varies.  From small seeds in March we grow the seedlings, nurture them indoors and then on the balconies until the plants are strong enough to survive in the garden. We water them every other day at least and watch the flowers and then the tiny green fruits appear. Towards the end of June or at latest the beginning of July we pick our first ripe fruit and then by the end of July the Roma variety start to ripen in large numbers, ready for picking and turning into purée to be used throughout the winter and spring until next year’s crop is ready again.

Tomatoes are so important here, as a basic ingredient of Mediterranean cuisine and I wrote a post four years ago about the significance of the gardeners’ query ‘vous avez des tomates?‘ – literally translated as ‘do you have tomatoes’, but in fact meaning ‘is everything all right?’  No one in our village could imagine living without them.

 

Some of the tomatoes we picked in the garden, carried home in a recycled fruit box fittingly labelled ‘soleil’.  When we pick them they feel hot, full of the sunshine we’ll store to eat in winter.

 

We’ve found by trial and error over the years that the simplest method of preserving tomatoes is to quarter them, sprinkle sea salt over them and roast them in the oven for a couple of hours.  When they’re beginning to brown slightly and have lost a lot of the liquid (the water we have patiently given the plants over the past couple of months!), we put them through a mouli légumes (a sieve would work too) and then heat the resulting purée in a pan on the hob until it has reduced a bit more (the choice of how thick you want your purée is up to you – we keep it to a pouring consistency) then add a dash of vinegar and pour it into sterilised jars. We cover the purée with a thin layer of olive oil and seal them. Because this purée is always heated again when it’s eventually used in in sauces I don’t worry about heating the full jars in a steriliser, but some people do.

 

The box of tomatoes made four jars of purée – we’ll be making many more during the next few weeks.

In the cool of the evening

We’ve had two long and very hot days going to Lodève for the wonderful Voix de la Méditerranée festival which is on all this week, a week packed with poetry in all the languages spoken around the Mediterranean and music from all its cultures. It’s my favourite cultural event, one that I look forward to from year to year.

Among many other excitements, we were exhilarated by two hours of non-stop Turkish gypsy music by Burhan Öçal & l’Ensemble Oriental d’Istanbul, and cooled while we listened to poetry in the welcome shade of the Cours Casablanca.

But it was hot, 38°C yesterday, and tiring so it was a pleasure this evening to sit quietly in our garden, eat our supper which included tomatoes and peppers picked straight from the plants, and water all the vegetables that are just beginning to come into full summer production.

 

First ripe tomato!

Just for the record, and because it’s one of the exciting days of the gardening year, here’s our first ripe tomato, picked this evening, a few days later than in other years but very welcome and there will be more very soon. I sliced it thinly, sprinkled it with salt and chopped basil and poured some Picholine olive oil over it – that was all it needed.

It’s one of the variety that we’ve named Gabian breakfast because it produces fruits that are just the right size for one serving of Spanish-style tomato flesh rubbed onto grilled bread with olive oil for breakfast.  We accidentally created this last year from cross-fertilisation the year before and, of course, it is changing again already and seems to be reverting to the indigenous Languedocian variety we also grow.  Beautiful, isn’t it?

As well as another courgette and three aubergines, we also picked this big bowl full of apricots, and there are at least twice as many still ripening on the tree.  After a couple of lean years, this is the best crop we’ve ever had from this Rouge de Roussillon tree that we planted about eight years ago.

Store cupboard essentials

On yet another rainy day, Lo Jardinièr and I talked as we were eating a lovely lunch of pizza left over from yesterday when he made it, accompanied by a salad of grated carrot (not from the garden) and slices of green and yellow pepper (from the garden).  As we often do, we remarked on how easy it is to make delicious food so long as we have certain basic essentials in the store cupboard and fridge.

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There are ingredients we would never be without, some of which are so essential I haven’t included them in the photo: rice, pasta, the tomato purée we make at least 50 jars of every summer and which last us through the winter and spring until we have fresh tomatoes in the garden again……salt and pepper too, of course.  But apart from these, here are a few others: capers (although when I can find them I prefer the salted ones to these in brine); anchovy fillets; olive oil (of course); raisins or currants; chorizo; garlic (again, of course!); piments d’Espelette or other paprika peppers, fresh or dried); lemon; black olives; bay leaves (and other fresh herbs as available in the garden, thyme, rosemary, basil…..).  Even if we have no other meat or vegetables we can always make something tasty to eat with these.

And as I write this I remember other essentials we almost always have in the cupboard: red and white wine, tinned chickpeas and haricot beans, tahina, walnuts, spices – coriander and cumin especially – and so much else.  But these in the picture are the basics.

For the photo I put all these in a dish which for me is another essential as it’s been in my family almost as long as I can remember.  It was made in Sicily and my mother bought it in Benghazi soon after we moved there in the 1950s. She passed it on to me after she had used it many times especially, as I remember, for rice salads when we had big family parties.

Nearly the end of the pepper harvest


We’re still picking a few piments d’Espelette for drying and grinding to make paprika, but it’s nearly the end of the season for them.

Goats' cheeses from Mas Roland

And in a few weeks’ time cheese production will stop for the winter at La Ferme du Mas Roland. These cheeses I bought today are a mix of fresh (1 day old), demi-sec (3 days old) and cendré (rolled in ash). I made salads for the first course of our supper tonight with some of our last tomatoes, chopped red and yellow peppers and the fresh goats’ cheese.

Fresh goats' cheese salad

Our main course was a foretaste of winter: pumpkin risotto garnished with crisp-fried lardons and sage leaves.

Pumpkin risotto

A quick lunch

Coming home hungry at midday, Lo Jardinièr and I managed to make lunch in only about 10 minutes: a courgette fresh from the garden, sliced and fried in olive oil; some slices of langanisse, a long spicy dried sausage; cherry tomatoes, also from the garden; huevos revueltos, a Spanish version of scrambled egg, this time with onions and peppers sliced and sautéed in olive oil before adding the beaten eggs and some chopped chorizo added to the mix as well.

A quick lunch