Two things worth remembering by every allotmenteer who is thinking of taking five days away on however worthy a cause. Firstly the weather doesn’t read the forecast and secondly, the allotment doesn’t care about your diary. So when we got back from the Lost Gardens – (it’s a rather chunky title, I think I’ll just refer to them as ‘Heligan’ in future) – so when we got back from Heligan, the allotment had seen the first touch of frost almost a month early. There was no real damage done, just a few damaged leaves on the french beans but a warning nonetheless.
The second challenge was that we had five trays of tomatoes on the very cusp of over-ripeness – actually they were about to topple over the edge. So there was no alternative but to give up all thoughts of planting shallots and overwintering onions and get going in the kitchen. It can’t be a surprise that we’ve had a brilliant year for tomatoes and it’s been a joy to have them fresh for the last three months; but we’ve had a constant surplus that needed managing. Usually we can give a few away on the allotment but everyone was in the same position as us, so we’ve made litres of passata, three types of tomato sauce for pasta and we’ve dried and preserved them in oil. In the past I would have thought that using 12lbs of ripe tomatoes to make ketchup was a bit extravagant, but I made 2 litres last year and it was delicious. (sorry about the mixed units but I’ll come to that in a bit). I couldn’t for the life of me think what recipe I’d used so I searched high and low through all our books, and there are lots of them. Usually an index is a blessing but to use one you need the correct term to search for, and in this case I spent an hour looking for ‘ketchup’ when the term I needed was ‘sauce’.
I found it in our beloved HMSO Bulletin 21 from the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food – “Home Preservation of Fruit and Vegetables”. This book was published in 1929 and we bought the 12th edition in 1968, the year after we were married and we’ve used it regularly for the past 50 years. The cover has half fallen off and the marmalade pages have stuck together in places, and the paper is turning ever darker yellow. The binding is so fragile that I’ve been meaning to scan it for several years, because it’s indispensable and amusing too, with a photo of how to seal a cellophane packet with an electric iron. Those were the days! But in those days, for a good working class lad, sauce meant the red or brown sauce that you had when there wasn’t gravy. Cue for false memories of miles walking barefoot to the mine, but it’s a cultural fact. So scanning the indexes for ‘ketchup’ was a lost cause from the beginning and I didn’t find the recipe I was looking for until I resorted to turning over the pages one at a time, and there it was between ‘chutneys’ and ‘drying’. I’ve added it below to demonstrate how unhealthy all that salt and sugar must be – but we only used one litre last year so I don’t think it will kill us!
So it was game on with the ketchup and I should warn you that it took six hours altogether but that included about five hours of doing other things and occasional stirrings. The tomatoes were particularly juicy this year and so the yield was just over six pints or three and a half litres. Old recipes are beset with unit problems, not quite quarts and bushels but getting there.
The method is very straightforward as long as you’ve got the right kit. I’ve spent years making it without the right kit but the yield is much lower, not least because so much of it lands up on the floor. So a cheap passata machine (Seeds of Italy do a good one) a strong chinoise (conical sieve) is much better for the final straining, and a decent 10L preserving pan are all a great help but not essential.
What you do is peel the tomatoes after a 1 min immersion in boiling water. Keep the skins because you can still get a lot of flesh off them after you’ve done the easy bit. Then you quarter them roughly and feed them through the passata machine makng sure that you don’t overcrank and break the handle off (it’s not an indusrial machine!). Right at the end you carefully feed the skins through. I find that you need three or even four passes to recover the last bit of pulp, and then the residue can go into the green waste.
Then the juice and pulp need simmering to reduce them with the salt and powdered spices while you prepare the spiced vinegar if you haven’t already started. Once that’s done you have to do the sieving. Over the years I’ve really struggled with this one, but my son, who’s a chef, saw me labouring away one day and gave me a tip. I’d always used a silicone spatula to press the pulp through the mesh of the chinoise. He said “use the back of a tablespoon”, and suddenly the work was so much easier. Just keep at it and most of it will eventuallly go through even though your arms will ache. You could make the ketchup without the sweat but the texture wouldn’t be as good. Then you add the spiced vinegar and sugar and return it to the stove reducing it to the right consistency. It does thicken a bit when it cools and I almost always forget so our ketchup takes a bit of shifting out of the bottle sometimes. And that’s it. Home-made ketchup really does taste better than the shop bought stuff. You need to leave it for a while for the flavour to develop and mature and the sharpness of the vinegar to take a back seat, but it’s really worthwhile if you’ve got a surplus of tomatoes on the allotment or even if you can pick them up cheap on a veg stall. Just to honour the past I labelled it “Tomato Sauce 2018 HMSO 115/4”. Three and a half litres – I don’t know what that is in gills.