The fruit was slow to form at first: a single green teardrop. Then another and then, as the weedy yellow flowers finished, an entire cluster. Within a month, and lapping up their fortnightly seaweed feed, my tomatoes were the size of plums.
The pots stagger down the stone steps. Tucked between them are chipped terracotta tubs of marigolds, thyme and fennel. Nasturtiums are welcome squatters among the tomato vine; an attempt to usher away the black fly. This year’s see-saw of scorching heat and blessed rain has been a much-needed source of nourishment for a kitchen-step garden.
That first ripe tomato received more attention than it probably deserved. No matter how many years you have grown them, those first fruits always amaze. “Did I grow that?” The wonder never dies.
I am sure most gardeners are more vigilant, more grateful, more loving. My courgettes and tomatoes, basil and tarragon survive on a diet of pampering and neglect. They are fed and watered when I remember, with the water from washing the salad leaves or the melted contents of the ice bucket.
I pick the fruits, one or two at first, then a daily handful, enjoying my fingers smelling green and aromatic. It is hard not to wolf the first tomato straight from the vine, but you want the chance to admire your handiwork – to rub it between your fingers, to eat it unadorned. I’m willing to bet no one has ever chucked that first, early fruit into a tomato sauce.
The food police tell us not to keep our tomatoes in the fridge. The cold dulls their flavour. But I rather enjoy a chilled tomato. The crisp, taut skin; the icy squirt of sweet-sour juice on your tongue. The herbs you add probably should be warm – basil leaves straight from the pot on the window sill; thyme warm, almost smoky from the sun. Warm herbs are heady and aromatic, and probably the least your home-grown tomatoes deserve.
Tomato, anchovy, tarragon
The addition of a little cream to the dressing soothes the strident flavours of the anchovy and onion. For once, I suggest fine chopping here. The pieces of red onion should be as small as you can make them. The 10 minutes or so that onion sits in the vinegar before you add the egg yolk will calm its pungency. Dress the tomatoes at the last minute, shortly before you bring the dish to the table.
I would serve this salad on a plate of its own, with some bread to soak up the dressing – a first course, perhaps. The tomatoes and tarragon dressing would flatter so many summer dishes, but especially grilled mussels, langoustines or mackerel. It would be a perfect side dish for boiled crab, where the warm juices of the sweet crustacean and tomatoes blend on the plate. Serves 4-5
tomatoes 10, assorted varieties,
medium and large
cherry tomatoes 8
pickled anchovies 10
For the dressing:
white-wine vinegar 1 tbsp
tarragon leaves 1 heaped tbsp
red onion 1, small
egg yolks 2
olive oil 4 tbsp
double cream 1 tbsp
Make the dressing: put the white-wine vinegar in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Finely chop the tarragon and add it to the vinegar. Peel the red onion, then finely chop enough to give you a heaped teaspoon and add it to the vinegar, then set aside for 10 minutes or so.
Wipe the tomatoes and remove their stalks. Slice both large and cherry varieties no thicker than a £1 coin, and lay them, slightly overlapping, on a large serving plate. Add the egg yolks to the vinegar and onion and beat with a small whisk. Pour in the olive oil, drop by drop, whisking continuously until the ingredients are thoroughly blended. Stir in the cream. Trickle the dressing over the tomatoes. Place the anchovies on the tomatoes and serve.
New potatoes, chillies and tomato
The potatoes are steamed and cracked open so they can soak up the aïoli-style dressing. The potatoes will sponge up the flavours better if you can dress them while they are still warm. Serves 4
new potatoes 500g
tomatoes 700g, assorted colours and sizes
red chilli 1, large
sherry vinegar 2 tbsp
spring onions 1 large or 3 thin ones
garlic 2 cloves
olive oil 2 tbsp
mayonnaise 3 tbsp
bottled guindilla chillies 4, plus 1 tbsp of their pickling liquor
Bring a medium-sized, deep pan of water to the boil, then place a steamer basket or colander over the top. Wash the new potatoes, put them in the steamer and cover with a lid. Steam the potatoes for 15-20 minutes until tender.
Roughly chop the tomatoes, then put them in a bowl. Finely chop both types of chilli, discarding the seeds if you wish, and add to the tomatoes. Sprinkle over the sherry vinegar and set aside. Slice the spring onions into thin rounds and toss lightly with the tomatoes.
Peel and thinly slice the garlic. Warm the olive oil in a shallow pan, add the garlic and let it colour to a deep brown. Take care it doesn’t burn. Put most of the garlic and its oil in a small bowl. Place the remainder on kitchen paper to drain and crisp.
When the potatoes are ready, put them in a serving dish. Press the tops firmly with the back of a spoon to crack them open and allow the dressing to penetrate.
Add the garlic and its oil to the mayonnaise, then stir in the liquor from the bottled guindilla. Stir the chopped tomatoes into the garlic mayonnaise and spoon over the crushed potatoes, letting the dressing soak down into them. Scatter the reserved crisp garlic over the top.