At the bottom of the garden, in a sunny flowerbed home to generous white roses and long, fragrant spikes of lavender, sits the biggest courgette plant I have ever grown. It sprawls across the lawn, a thigh-high, metre-wide hurdle between me and the shed – and it is fruiting its socks off.
In this odd summer marked by an early heatwave, the usual gluts of tomatoes and courgettes are fully underway, hastened by the early sun; already my apple tree’s boughs kiss the grass below, laden and heavy. “It’s been a fantastic year in many ways but a very hard growing year – and things are really early,” notes Aaron Bertelsen, a vegetable gardener and cook at Great Dixter, the East Sussex family home of the great gardener and writer Christopher Lloyd.
“The crops have grown very quickly and are bountiful, but there’s been a lot more pressure on watering and things have gone over much more quickly. It’s one of those years where gluts become a problem because you have to deal with things right away – with lettuces, for instance, you need to get them picked or they’ll go to seed.”
Or, in the case of my courgettes, turn into enormous marrows.
Whether you cram your fruit and veg in among your flowers, coax it along in water-demanding pots or organise and nurture it within dedicated beds or an allotment, you will likely be facing a surfeit of something this season: from the fruits of a single tree all ready at the same moment, to the output of a whole glasshouse of tomatoes. And when you’ve grown it all yourself, the thought of it going on the compost heap is scandalous. So what to do with it all?
Bertelsen, the author of The Great Dixter Cookbook, a collection of recipes celebrating his kitchen garden’s seasonal bounty, looks to his freezer. He has already been making the most of this year’s plenty, filling his freezer with beans, which he says this summer are extraordinary. He tops and tails them, and puts them into hot water “for no more than two minutes” before freezing them. He will let them lightly defrost before cooking, “but not too much or they go soggy”.
Alongside them, he stashes small batches of courgette and spinach soup, to be devoured in the darker months when the freshness of summer squash acts as a reminder of the lush green to come.
The Guardian’s gardening columnist Alys Fowler is another who likes to savour the joys of summer long after her plants have succumbed to the frost. “I always look forward to a tomato glut,” she says. “I cut them in half and put them in a tray with olive oil, whole heads of garlic and lots of rosemary, and roast them. Then I blitz them, skins and all, so I have a passata to freeze for the winter. I make shedloads of it.”
Fowler, the author of Abundance: How to Store and Preserve Your Garden Produce, relies on a tip from her mum for cherry tomatoes. “You can freeze them whole, and then take them straight from the freezer into a pan and cook them. They can’t be too big, but it’s great for small tomatoes.”
Not all of us will have enough tomatoes to see us through to the autumn. If you have just a handful of plants, their sun-ripened fruits are most likely to feature in salads – perhaps with chickpeas, simply with olive oil and oregano, or sour with sumac and pomegranate. But if your harvest is looking healthy, consider making a tart. “It’s the best thing to do with a tomato,” says Bertelsen. “It’s very simple, uses lots of fruit, and really makes the most of their flavour. We grow a variety called Crimson Crush, which is quite blight-resistant – last year we had tomatoes through till October. It’s not as rich a flavour as some, but it doesn’t matter so much if you’re making a tart; I add parmesan and mustard and make as many as I possibly can.” Find the recipe below.
Growing different varieties of the same vegetable makes them more interesting to eat – as well as helping to spread out your harvest. “If you have five plants of green courgettes, it’s going to get boring,” says Fowler. “But if you have green, yellow, a pattypan – that’s much more interesting. So persuade your friends to sow different varieties, and then swap plants.”
Those who particularly value courgette flowers – soft, vibrant and as big as your hand – might like to grow an Italian variety of the plant that only has male flowers (ie no fruit). “I tend to chop the flowers and put them with pasta. They don’t always have to be stuffed and fried – they’re nice just put into a sauce,” Fowler says.
Or you can do as Pam Corbin does, and consider the joys of courgette and ginger jam. Corbin, preserver extraordinaire and patron of the Guild of Jam Makers, takes a kilogram of courgettes, grates them, adds 100ml of lemon juice and 100g of grated ginger, and then adds 800g jam sugar (with pectin). “You can make a batch of jam really swiftly: a six-minute boil and you have six pots,” she says.
“Alternatively, you can do a chutney. I like single-flavour chutneys – courgettes are good, and so are carrots or apples. I blitz up the veg with garlic, chillies and onions. You get a chutney that is really bright and not brown and mushy; something between a chutney and a relish.”
When I talk to Corbin (known as Pam the Jam) one Friday morning in early August, she is awaiting a delivery of English plums; she has already enjoyed greengages this summer. She is currently experimenting with lower-sugar preserving, her spare room and fridge each playing host to jars of gently ageing fruit butters.
While a commercial jam has to have 60% sugar levels – including the natural fruit sugars – in a fruit butter that figure is reduced to 45-50%, and Corbin is testing whether that can be brought down to 30-40%. “I use these butters, which are like a fruit spread, at breakfast with porridge, or I make little yoghurt pots with the fruit spread at the bottom,” she says.
To make an apple and blackberry butter, halve and core the apples but don’t peel them, before cooking them to a mush with some blackberries. (The hedgerows are currently bursting with fruit: every morning I wait for my train gazing on to a darkly glistening wall of them, tantalisingly out of reach and seemingly ignored by the birds.)
Next, put your cooked fruit pulp through a sieve, before adding sugar and cooking until it is quite thick. “As apples have a lot of pectin, it should thicken well,” Corbin says. “The less sugar you add, the longer you need to cook it for. But it is possible to reduce the sugar. If you have a kilo of pulp, then you could aim for around 350g of sugar.”
The most important thing, she says, is to make sure you prepare and fill your jars correctly – sterilising them in a dishwasher, pan of hot water or oven, and then filling them right to the brim. “If I’m making something really low-sugar, I’ll fill it, seal it and then put it back in a hot-water bath for five minutes.” (If you’d like to learn more, Pam teaches courses at Otter Farm, Devon.)
And if you’d like to avoid the added sugar altogether? Stew your apples and freeze them for use in crumbles and to eat with porridge and granola – presuming you have any freezer space left, of course.
For those with vegetable crops they would like to preserve, but freezers stuffed with half-full packets of fishfingers, pots of long-forgotten chicken stock and five different types of coffee, Fowler suggests looking to lacto-fermentation. “It’s fermenting in a brine – and it’s great for french beans, carrots or dill pickles. It’s perfect when your glut is a small handful; you’ve got too many to eat tonight, but if you leave them a week they’ll be compost.”
Instead of freezing her french beans, Fowler makes a brine of 40g of salt to one litre of boiling water, adding garlic, dill flowers, chilli, coriander seeds and mustard seeds. With the liquid at room temperature – “it needs to be colder than a cup of tea” – she adds topped and tailed beans to a Kilner jar. Then she pours on the brine, adding a grape leaf to the jar to keep the veg crisp, and makes sure everything is properly submerged. Pulling down on the orange seal every few days will release any gas.
“After a week, things will be on their way. Keep checking them – everybody finds their happy point with fermenting, and how soon they like to eat things.”
Right now, Fowler has a different glut on her hands: an overabundance of kale, a surfeit that she is managing with the help of a dehydrator.
It is not a purchase for someone with a single fruit tree and a handful of veg plants – no matter how big they’ve grown. But if you have an allotment, it could be worth considering. “It really changes your whole feeling towards gluts: I put things in overnight and in the morning I’ve filled a store cupboard,” says Fowler. “I love making sundried tomatoes in it, and dried apple and pear, and courgette crisps are great too.”
“They never last for long because they are very moreish, but you preserve a lot of the vitamin and mineral content of the vegetable, so they are pretty healthy.” Gardeners without a dehydrator can instead use their ovens on a very low temperature.
And for those of us faced with no space, and courgettes that have turned into marrows? Fowler has a radical suggestion: “Cut off the end, scoop out the middle, fill it with sugar, pop the end back on, prop it upright and leave it. It will ferment into alcohol – it’s a proper hooch.”
Recipes to help conquer your veg glut
Pam Corbin’s courgette chutney
Enjoy this chutney with just about everything: cheese, cold meats, curries. You can use up overgrown courgettes, but it is best made using young, tender courgettes when they are about 15-20cm
1kg courgettes 1tbsp fine sea salt 1tbsp coriander seeds 1tbsp cumin seeds 1 large onion, peeled and quartered 3 fat garlic cloves, peeled 1 red chilli, split and deseeded 40g root ginger, peeled 100ml sunflower oil 2tbsp black mustard seeds 1tsp turmeric powder 300ml cider vinegar 200g demerara sugar
Have ready 4 x 300ml sterilised jars and lids.
Rinse the courgettes, trimming off the stalk ends and the remains of any flower heads. Slice small courgettes into approximately 1cm pieces; for larger courgettes, halve and quarter lengthwise before slicing. Place in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt, tossing lightly to cover all the surfaces – the salt will draw excess water from the courgettes and prevent them becoming mushy. Set aside in a cool place for two hours.
Turn the courgettes into a large sieve or colander and rinse with plenty of cold water to remove the salt. Drain and dry well.
Meanwhile, toast the coriander and cumin seeds in a dry frying pan for 3-4 minutes until fragrant. Remove from the heat and pound/grind to a powder.
Place the onion, garlic, chilli, ginger and half the oil in a blender and blitz to a paste. Heat the remaining oil in a roomy saucepan or preserving pan. Sprinkle in the mustard seeds and lightly fry until they sizzle. Add the onion paste, ground spices and tumeric powder and cook for five minutes, stirring to prevent the mixture catching. Add the vinegar, sugar and finally the courgettes, stirring to combine, then bring to simmering point.
Cook over a gentle heat for approximately 30 minutes until the courgettes are just cooked, then turn up the heat for a few more minutes to drive off any excess liquid. Remove from the heat.
Spoon into the prepared jars, tapping them on the work surface to remove any pockets of air. Seal immediately with vinegar-proof lids.
Can be eaten immediately, but will improve if stored for 3-4 weeks.
Find more of Pam’s recipes at 400gooseberries.wordpress.com
Aaron Bertelsen’s tomato tart
For me, this tart is like eating summer, and is one of the best things to do with fresh tomatoes at their peak. The extra few minutes in the oven without the pan makes all the difference, and, like all tarts, it benefits from having a little time to rest and settle before being eaten.
(Serves 8) Oil or butter, for greasing 1 packet chilled shortcrust pastry (or make your own) Flour, for dusting 4tbsp wholegrain mustard 8 large tomatoes (about 850g in total), sliced quite finely 2tbsp grated gruyere cheese 2tbsp olive oil Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4, placing an oven rack in the lower part of it. Grease a 30cm loose-bottom tart pan.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured work surface until it is large enough to line your tart pan.
Spread the mustard on the bottom of the pastry case. Place some sliced tomatoes around the edge of the case, making sure they overlap, then fill in the middle.
Sprinkle the cheese over the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, then drizzle with the oil.
Place the tart on a baking sheet and bake on a low oven rack for 40 minutes. Take the tart out of the oven and carefully slip off the outer ring, leaving the tart sitting on the base.
Return to the oven on the baking sheet for another 5–10 minutes so the sides get really crisp.