Of blushing French heirlooms and basil bud oil

September 23rd, 2008


Late summer, these sun-washed afternoons of l’arrière saison in the Périgord, could otherwise be known as le temps des tomates: tomatoes are rolling in from all directions. The phone rings, a friend in the valley calls: …”lots of tomatoes -bring a box!”…. and every other day Madame L, my petite neighbor calls “ooh hoo” with another sack of tomatoes for our lunch. I’m not quite ready to shout: “enough/assez”, for there are more ideas to explore for baking, stewing and preserving these globes of summertime goodness.

Actually, it all begins in July with the Marmande, a mid-season French heirloom – probably the best known of our patrimoine des potagers – whose convoluted bulges only add more tangy flavor to salads and sauces.  Another favorite rather lumpy heirloom is the Costralee, followed by the popular Coeur de Boeuf (big, but not as large as a beef heart, about the size of a beefsteak tomato). For color variety, I look for the mid-season La Carotina, a small, juicy orange tomato and later, the pinkish red Grosse Cotelee. In every region, you’ll find other heirloom varieties alongside the dependable sauce tomatoes such as Roma and San Marzano. Heirloom seeds are dried, kept through generations for each summer’s open-air pollinated fruit, no genetic modification, nor hybrid-crosses, all dependent on bees and other buzzing pollinators.

But what can I do with a heap of tomatoes, besides hauling out the preserving kettle and stirring up a batch of chutney? Faced with a shortage of time in the kitchen, I recently roasted a batch and froze them to add some zing to a winter soup or ragout. This is the simplest drill: line a clean roasting pan with fresh herbs – bay and sage leaves, branch-tops of celery, thyme, whatever you have. Choose large and firm tomatoes, wash and dry each tomato, trim the stem-tops and core, sprinkle with olive oil and more thyme. Roast in a medium/ 350°f oven for about 2 hours. Remove from the oven, let cool, scoop out tomato pulp into freezer cartons, cool, cap, label and freeze. Add salt and pepper to taste when you thaw them; the roasted tomatoes taste richer than when cooked on top of the stove. Fast-forward to the winter soup: drizzle a little basil bud oil over all…

Basil bud oil’

Basil buds, those perfect center leaves so easy to pinch when you don’t want the basil stem to flower (which they will do anyway…another story), come into full-tilt production at the same time as the plethora of tomatoes hits. So, pack small clean jars with basil leaves, then pour in some light olive oil – greener and fruity, not yellow and heavy – before sealing the jar and storing it in a cool, dark cabinet. Imagine a rainy December night, long past these bright September days, when you can top a provençal tomato soup with a dash of fragrant oil that brings it (almost) all back: l’arrière-saison revisitée!

Notes on seeds and tomato festivities:

Sources for heirloom varieties include: www.chileseeds.co.uk/organic-heirloom-tomato and www.heirloomtomatoes.bizland.com

Tomato Festivities in France are many, but one noteworthy event occurs near Tours in mid-September, when an exceptional potager (vegetable garden) featuring over 550 varieties of tomatoes opens its doors to visitors. Prince Louis-Albert de Broglie has filled his Loire valley, 16th century château gardens with tomatoes (and stunning dahlias). The remarkable Château de Bourdaisière in Montlouis-sur-Loire lies west of Amboise. For directions, dates and (they host B&B in the château) details, see: www.chateaulabourdaisiere.com