Thursday, February 20, 2014

Heirloom Tomato Saga.

I have a treasure trove of seeds, a precious collection given to me by my generous brother-in-law when he left South Africa for the UK. I sorted them into  ten shoe- and ice-cream boxes, one for each family of plants: roots, brassicaceae, curcurbits, aliiums, solanaceae, flowers, herbs, lettuces, legumes, corn and miscellaneous. The solanaceae box alone has more than forty packets of tomatoes, peppers and brinjals. In early winter last year I carefully planned my Spring planting to maximise the use of  these wonderful seeds in our vegetable tunnel. 

In mid-winter we constructed trays of seedling pots from newspaper and sowed seeds in our own home-made seedling mix using sand hauled from the river bed, vermiculite saved from the attic and our own compost.  To thwart frost's dominion over our planting times, I placed the seed pots under lights in our sun room to germinate. 

Besides all the other types of seeds, I sowed 15 varieties of full sized tomatoes and 6 varieties of cherry tomatoes. Last Summer we didn't harvest enough tomatoes to see us through our year, so I planned to grow 24 regular and 12 cherry tomato plants this year. I had glorious visions of tomato sauces, dried and frozen tomatoes stored up for winter. 

I knew that I needed to sow more seeds than we needed in case of failure to germinate. Seed insurance. It's just as well that I did, as quite a few varieties did not germinate at all. From those that did, there were losses along the way, like the time I was ill and my family forgot to water them, and the time the cat thought the trays of seedlings would make a great kitty toilet. 

After months of indoor nurturing, the survivor seedlings were eventually transplanted into bigger pots and hardened outdoors until they were ready for planting in the tunnel. Only 3 varieties of cherry tomato and 8 varieties of regular tomato had made it to this point. However, I still had more than 36 plants waiting for transplanting. My two beloved men prepared the beds, doing the backbreaking work of digging in barrow loads of compost. Then I carefully set out and labelled the seedlings. 

The tomatoes grew fast and furiously. We built wooden trellises to support them. By December they were reaching for the sky and, laden with green globes, bearing promises of a bountiful Summer. We flanked them with borage, nasturtiums  and cornflowers to attract the pollinating insects, and basil to repel the chomping insects. 

Then in January we were away for three weeks. Our home and garden were left int he capable hands of Molly and Blantina. 

We arrived home after dark. We were tired and hungry.  

Baskets of tomatoes and a pile of eggs were a welcome sight. 

My tired brain mulled over the supper problem. What could I make, relatively effortlessly, using egg and tomatoes. There wasn't even any bread in the house. A frittatta was the solution. Fast food, farm style. 

The following morning I was stunned to see the change in our beautiful tomato plants after three weeks. 

They were falling over their supports, all brown and dying, fruit valiantly ripening on the wilted vines. Apparently, while we were in Cape Town,  our water pump was out of order for two of the three weeks, and in scorching weather. 

Over the next few days I rescued as many of the fruit as I could, picking them slightly underripe to prevent pest damage on top of their distress. I tied up, fed and watered the vines, yet we still lost about a third of the plants, with more dying daily. 

With my plans for saving seeds and preserving a year's worth of tomatoes dashed, as few of the tomatoes were still producing flowers, I did what I could to enjoy the wonderful, mostly heirloom varieties that had survived. My scientific nature kicked in. I sorted the tomatoes into their varieties as they ripened indoors and we had tasting contests, and I also experimented with cooking methods for the different varieties.

Here are some of my findings:


BLACK CHERRY (Heirloom, Living Seeds - original cellophane packaging*): Larger than  most cherries, firm and juicy, perfect for salads. Flavour tart and mild. Robust, prolific producer. 100% germination. 

BLONDKOPFCHEN (Heirloom, Living Seeds - original cellophane packaging*): Pretty bright yellow tomato, standard cherry size. Thin skinned. Sweet, tasty tomato. Lovely for drying, salads, and tomato tart. Prolific producer, vigorous vine. Good germination rate.

SWEETIE (Commercial, Kirchoffs): Tiny, bright orange, sweet, tasty cherry. Looks pretty alongside the yellow cherry in a salad or tomato tart. Succumbed to disease more quickly than other cherry types. 100% germination


MONEYMAKER (Commercial, Starke Ayres): Small red tomatoes, not quite cherry, nor regular size. They ripened completely to a good red. The plant had died by the time we were home, so only we had a few to try. Good for sauces and stews. Taste unmemorable.

TIGERELLA (Heirloom, Gravel Garden**): Two pretty, small, still green, striped tomatoes were left on the dead plant. They didn't make it to the kitchen. My chef friend says these are wonderful, and sought after, sadly though, not robust enough for our drought.  50% germination (No photo)


HEINZ (Commercial, Starke Ayres): Small to medium, delicious bright red tomatoes. Firm textured. Robust tangy flavour. Perfect for roasting and sauces (obviously). Determinate tomato. Died from drought, but would have died anyway. Short lived, early abundant fruiting. 100% germination.

HILLBILLY (Heirloom, Living Seeds - original cellophane packaging*): I rescued one tomato before the stressed plant succumbed to disease. Interesting yellow and pink markings. Large, boat shaped, well flavoured, juicy tomato. 50% germination. (No photo)

CHEROKEE CHOCOLATE (Heirloom, Living Seeds - original cellophane packaging*). Old style, large boat shaped, mottled orange/olive/brown unattractive colour.  Flavourful firm tomato. Tasty eaten raw or cooked. Suited best to ratatouille-type dishes. Valiant producer in spite of drought.  50% germination.

 ESTLERS MORTGAGE LIFTER (Heirloom, Living Seeds - new paper packaging*). I would love to know the origin of the delightful name. A winner. Abundant fruit. Fairly robust plants. Bright pinky-red, large, boat shaped. The ultimate richly flavoured, juicy sandwich tomato. This is what a home grown tomato should taste like. Great for cooking too. 90% germination.
*** Edited to add link to a different Mortgage Lifter tomato story. I love it.***

COSTOLUTO GENOVESE (Heirloom, Living Seeds - original cellophane packaging*): Medium to small Italian ribbed tomato. Ripens to a bright orange red. Susceptible to disease, not a strong plant, but absolutely the best tasting tomato that we have ever tried. Very decorative when sliced.  Savoury, deep flavour. Definitely wins the prize for most delicious of all. 10% germination.

 GOLDEN MONARCH (Heirloom, Gravel Garden**): Definitely the queen of the tomato garden. A survivor. Enormous bright yellow, old fashioned boat shape. Savoury, sweet and juicy tomato, best served raw, sliced on a plate with a sprinkling of salt. By far the best drought and disease resistance of all the tomatoes I planted this summer. Late, generous producer. Rampant vine. 20% germination.

In spite of all the setbacks and disappointments, I am looking forward to trying again with some different tomato varieties and some of my new favourites next summer. In the meantime, we have pulled up a third of our tomato plants, with more on their way out, and sowed lettuce and chicory seeds in their place to carry us through the rest of this summer.

Living Seeds is an excellent heirloom seed supplier in South Africa. I picked out their seeds to try from my collection that were the oldest (in their original cellophane packaging). Saved seeds are not usually viable for many years, so those that germinated well are a tribute to the variety and to the way they were saved.

** Gravel Garden is a delightful heirloom seed supplier in the Cape. We visited them in January

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Summer Harvest

I was up early this morning, taking our puppy, Kariba, out for her morning walk. The golden sunrise caught my breath in it's magnificence. I strolled over the dew-damp grass to check on Joy and her two day old calf, Rumble. She stared at me from across the field as he greeted the cool morning suckling warm milk to fill his belly. I wandered along the back fence, picking gooseberries and then a few cherry tomatoes.

Late Summer days are golden. Sunflowers splash their golden faces over the fields. Sunrises are golden or fiery red. Pumpkins line up, promising warm cinnamon scented meals in the cold days to come. Ripening tomatoes in Autumn shades of red, orange, green and gold hang from the vines and fill baskets on the kitchen counter. Beans dry in their browning pods. Gooseberries wait for picking, concealing their fruit in papery packages. The scent of sweet figs fills the house as we preserve the fleeting fruit, picked before the birds can steal them.

The ancient grape vine is laden with purpling gems. The strawberry popcorn stalks fade from green as their  hidden red kernels harden in the summer heat. Sun-yellow jerusalem artichoke flowers and tansy buttons grace our table.

Our days are filled with harvest work. Sweet plunder is collected in jars as hives are robbed Bottles of tomato ketchup line up on the kitchen table, each coloured according to the heirloom variety used. Jewelled  jars of fig preserve hint of promised mouthwatering combinations, their sweetness contrasting with salty, savoury blue cheese. Trays of red and yellow cherry tomatoes shrivel and dry, sharpening their flavours. A pumpkin is carved up for fritters, soup, baking and bredie. 

We gather. We pick. We sort. We share. We blanche. We freeze. We syrup. We jam. We pickle. We dry. We store. We prepare.

We do not sit. The harvest produces relentlessly. It will not wait. We work now.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Slow Living in January

January, month of anguish for a mother-heart, has passed. Remembering the days spent in Cape Town, settling my beloved daughter in for the new season of her college life and then that long, long drive home to the farm, is something that I have not been able to confront until today. I am sitting on our verandah, the heat of the day overpowering the shade as I look out over the green fields, thunderclouds building in the hazy sky. Katy Melua serenades the late afternoon along with an impertinent hadeda. So join me as I revisit the past month along with Slow Living Essentials.

My soul was nourished with family, friendship, love and meals shared this month. Precious moments all of them....

*A sundowner meal of crackers, chips, dips, watermelon and goodbyes on the hill overlooking the farm, shared with farm friends on her last night before we left.
*Welcoming comfort of my sister-in-law's homemade Spaghetti Bolognese and gorgeous salad lovingly prepared with my nephew in anticipation of our arrival.
* Organic chicken from my dear friend's teenage son's meat business, braaied by the boys
accompanied with ratatouille picked and prepared from her urban homestead, and splashing children shouting, and chilled drinks.
* Bring and share chicken, salad, pizza lunch with my family, cousins laughing and swimming.
*Chocolate croissants, a continental breakfast with my beloved Dad and Merle, looking out over a drizzly Noordhoek valley.
*Mom and daughter fruit shakes and hard mothering time.
*Boy's school buddy reminiscing over curry and anecdotes with Decadent Dad.
*Nana's cook all night curry and popadums served with love and kindness.
*Girls' treat of earl grey tea and chocolate cheesecake for me in a vintage tea shop full of trinkets and heart time. Sisters, daughters and cousins, above all, friends.
*Fish, wine and sushi with old friends, celebrating getting older together and longstanding friendship.
*Perfect fish and chips and a beer with our family at Fisherman's in my heart-home Kommetjie followed by a long walk with loved ones on my Long Beach.
*Braai at the beautifully decorated home of my faithful friend and her family, the boys big and small amusing themselves by hanging a swing from the too high branches of an oak tree in the garden. Lemon meringue pie baked by the 14 year old birthday boy.
*Cherished moments with old valley friends, sumptuous deli lunch, with her daughter's homemade cheese and tea with cakes and happy laughter.
*Gourmet dinner with cousins on a long, lovely Summer's evening in their magnificent new home.
*Birthday cake - chocolate meringue and strawberries baked by my sweet niece and a surprise visit  and gift from a still young, looking-gorgeous, good old friend.
*Surprise birthday lunch spoiling from my Dad, scrumptious butternut salad in a pretty garden.
*Cocktails on the beachfront for sundowners followed by dinner for two, a foodie adventure of note, decadent dinner at Cheyne's in Hout Bay, Asian fusion restaurant. My birthday party for two. Me and my man.
*Coffee, Lindt-romany-creams and awesome catch-up after the years with one of the four C's- bff's from school.
*Blueberry cheesecake and tea under the trees in the Tokai Arboretum alongside sincere heart sharing with a dear friend.
*Roast organic chicken and roast potatoes with caramel birthday cake for a 17 year old young man and family friend, cake baked by his younger sister. After dinner brother and sister demonstrated their ballroom dancing finesse in the lounge.
*Tea and treats with hot chilli muffins and heirloom seeds with my sister and my fabulous uncle and aunt in Gravel Garden.
*Family, abundant chicken and porkie braai at my brother- and sister-in-law's home, cute Jack Russel-child antics and fun photo memories.
*Painters' Saturday lunch of fancy cheeses on bread at my talented Dad's studio. Alpaca wool for felting, a take-home gift.
*Muizenberg Surfer's Corner beach picnic of grapes, chicken-mayo rolls, chips and surfing lessons for the kids with my brother-in-law from the UK.
*Kalk Bay ice creams and then chilling at Cape to Cuba with my brother-in-law. Mojitos, nachos and pizza watching kids down in the fishing harbour dancing to the loud music.
*Comfort coffee with my husband when my mom-heart was breaking.
*Fish braai with family, yellowtail kindly bought by my mom-in-law from Kalk Bay harbour because I miss fish on the farm.
*Kirstenbosch walk and  precious talk time and scrambled egg breakfast/tea with another one of the four C's - bff's from school.
*Appletizers on Constantia Nek sharing parent hearts with our precious daughter.
*Delicious potjie with my brother and his family, naughty cute mischief of my adorable nephew and precious last moments with my family.
*A step into my teenage years in the childhood garden of the third of the four C's from my school days, orange cake and tea with her unchanged, fantastic parents and a walk down memory lane with them.
*Heart-healing tea with a faithful friend, tear salted muffin, healthy green juice and promises of prayer surrounded by antiques, herbs and hearts.
*Popcorn, apples and Egyptian geese at Kirstenbosch with my sister and the boy-cousins. Picnic blanket and chill time.
*Tasty butternut, tomato, spicy sausage pasta and tears with my sister-in-law.
*A tray of heart-lifting Cassis patisserie petit-fours, all for me, for tea, lunch and tea again, and then for midnight snack. I did share a very few.
*A cup of interrupted coffee and not enough time left with my sister.
*Last night sunset picnic of our usual crackers, dips, photos and cheeses on the beach with my most precious three, a fitting farewell to my only daughter on our last night.
*The long drive home to an empty bedroom, heartache, lots of eggs and tomatoes and a comforting frittatta for our first meal for three back home.

Our city visit involved stockpiling of a different kind...
In Cape Town we visited Atlas Trading in the Bo-Kaap to stock up on authentic Cape spices, hard to find where we live, Malay curry spices, missed and needed in my cuisine. A Cape curry is not the same without a good masala. I use a lot of cumin in my feta, rare in our local shops. Decadent Dad is hoping to try his hand at sausage-making, so he stocked up on paprika. I also visited the Ina Paarman Factory Shop for some inexpensive condiments. Our little town has only one, rather inept book shop, so I trawled the bargain book stores, picking up a few treasures. My delighted hubby restocked his wardrobe with some wonderfully inexpensive clothes at a factory shop sale too.

Back on the farm, the wonderful, amazing Blantina, who was housesitting for us, spent many hours making cheese, and blanching and freezing, or pickling garden produce during our abundant harvest time, so nothing went to waste.

My sister, noticing one of my older slow Living Green comments a few months ago,  gave me a new deodorant to try out. It is natural and works beautifully, but rather pricy. I see that the main two ingredients are water and bicarbonate of soda... mmm I have a plan for when it runs out.

I thought the veggie tunnel was a jungle when we left for Cape Town, well Jane, you'd better hold onto your hat, our jungle became almost impenetrable. We came home to borage swamped by tomatoes, nasturtiums climbing up cucumber tripods, abundant beans ambushed by marigolds. The exuberant garden has generously provided more than we can eat.

Sadly our tomatoes and pumpkins took strain while when the water pump to the house malfunctioned for too many days, so I have subsequently spent many an hour attempting to salvage some of the 36 heirloom tomato plants that were looking rather devastated.

While in Cape Town, I collected a whole heap of plastic yoghurt containers, milk bottles and jars (many saved by my thoughtful mother-in-law) to bring back to the farm for preserving, milk sales and storage.

We created happy, treasured memories, we re-created a beautiful bedroom for our daughter in her new home, my generous sister-in-law's house, and Decadent Dad converted her garage into an art and photographic studio for the two of them.

He also made  our daughter a jewellery holder from a saved piece of driftwood collected off the rocky shore during our Gansbaai days.

I have been reading the entertaining and enlightening e-book all about bread baking, 52 Loaves by William Alexander, a story of "one man's relentless pursuit of truth, meaning and the perfect crust", a delightful account of his baking one loaf a week for a year, and all that his fascination with peasant bread led to, that has taught me plenty about levain, sourdough, poolish, lames and the like. Alongside this, I am also reading the book Bread Revolution by Duncan Glendinning and Patrick Ryan of the Thoughtful Bread Company whose focus in on using local, seasonal ingredients and getting people back to appreciating the art of making bread. The book is full of excellent recipes for breads as well accompaniments. Between reading the two books, I have become inspired and found myself involuntarily kneading a loaf of rye bread last Sunday when I should have been preparing for my son's first academic day of the year. It was delicious served with farm butter and my niece's jigi-jolo jam.

My sister and I took a day trip to Gravel Garden, an heirloom plant nursery and seed supplier in Somerset West. Every Friday morning they hold a bartering morning where customers can trade various goods from vegetables to home made goods.

We met up with our aunt and uncle there. It was a worthwhile outing and although we had nothing to trade, we supported them through our purchases. I have subsequently collected some Asian adzuki bean seeds from my veggie tunnel to post back to Shannon. My brother-in-law gave me the bean seeds originally bought from Gravel Garden quite a few years ago. So what goes around comes around.

We came home to a nine-week old Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy, little Kariba.

She has brought me plenty of slobbery kisses, surprise puddles, night time wee-wee walks and sweet snuggles when I needed them most.

There is never enough time when one is saying goodbye. I enjoyed seeing my daughter finding her way in her new city life, the new-found freedom of her own generously gifted car, the way that she was embraced by friends, family and her new church in her old/new home town,  and it was special to share in her excitement of starting college.