Tuesday, 11 November 2014

From Poly to Plate

It was Hallow'een. I was in the mood to be amazed. I was feeling ropey after a turbulent night arguing with a dodgy prawn (or at least that's what I thought it was at the time, though it subsequently turned out to be one of it's more deadly relatives, the winter virus). Feeling weak and feeble and very sorry for myself, I was gazing blankly through the window watching leaves fall outside in the garden of my parent's house. I needed something amazing to happen to lift me up out of my funk. Water and glucose energy tablets weren't doing it for me. 

A red admiral butterfly fluttered by. That was pretty amazing for the time of year. But having read an article in the morning paper about the many sightings of the red admiral throughout October, my amazement was somewhat diminished. Unfair to the butterfly. Blame the media. A large dragonfly made its staccato flight left to right across my view through the window. That was definitely an amazing thing to happen on Hallow'een. And all the more amazing for not being an event my morning newspaper had told me to expect. 

I realised that I wasn't seeing the bigger picture (clearly my inner philosopher is roused from her slumber by a dose of the runs and a morning spent in sporadic prayer to the porcelain God). My self-indulgent, woe is me, entertain me, dance for me, state of mind was clouding my vision. Everything I saw through the window that morning was amazing. It's amazing that nature in myriad forms was out there to be seen and, dicky tummy aside, that I was there at that point in time in that spot to see it. The more you look, the more you see. A white-tailed bumble bee was foraging in the begonia. A common carder bee emerged from the trailing lobelia. The bees were still flying - amazing! The flowers were still flowering - amazing! And then I started to think about tomatoes. I had my phone in my hand and I happen to have a lot of photos of tomatoes on my phone, so that wasn't as great a leap of imagination as you might think. I'm sure that every smallholder has a photo gallery consisting mainly of fruit, vegetables, animals or food in varying stages of growth or consumption, but it's possible that this condition is specific to me. But back to the tomato .....

We grow tomatoes in our polytunnel every year. Each plant starts its life in March as a small seed. It's no bigger than a piece of fluff from a belly button. We give it a bed of damp, organic, peat-free compost and a warm spot on top of the biomass boiler. Three, sometimes four or five days later a seedling appears, its head bowed down by the seed case that it wears like a tiny crash helmet. The temptation to free the cotelydon leaves from this burden is great, but we leave the seedling to bear the weight so it can grow strong and healthy in its own time as nature intended. Before too long we have a whole tray of seedlings, a mini-forest on our kitchen windowsill. The three inch tall seedlings are lovingly pricked out, held aloft by the lightest possible touch on their delicate first true leaves, and with a few words of encouragement and some apologies for the disturbance, each is eased gently into its own little pot. It's at this point that failure to label each pot can be disasterous. How else will you know pre-fruiting whether your plant is a Matina or a Saint Pierre, or a Zuckertraube or a Costoluto. Examining plants for minute differences in leaf shape is no substitute for good labelling.


Every spare windowsill is now home to tomato plant. We allocate responsibility between us to ensure that at least one person remembers to tend the plants in each room. At this point we have to hope that the point at which the plants hit 6 inches tall and their roots fill the pot, corresponds with a warming of the weather. We check the forecast daily, trying to assess the risk of late frost, as even in the polytunnel the plants can take a potentially fatal knock-back if the temperature plummets overnight, but once they're settled in their final growing site the real magic begins. Manure, water, stinky comfrey tea, warmth and sunshine are the fairy dust. The plants grow, and grow, and grow some more, until that tiny seed is a four foot high plant laden with trusses of tomatoes, a cascade of green, yellow, orange and red. Now that's amazing!



And do you know what's more amazing? The smell of a bowl of warm freshly picked tomatoes. Bury your nose in it and breath deeply. Everyone says this, but it's true, it's a bowl of sunshine, sunshine that can be sliced, drizzled with oil, sprinkled with basil and munched for summer lunch, or roasted, mushed and stashed away for a taste of summer on a rainy November day like today.