Our long-term goal is to grow and preserve as much of our own food as we can. In order to see if we can actually live that life, we are visiting pick-your-own farms in our area, and making batches of the things we use the most. We have already picked berries and made jam. The preserved things we use the most in our everyday life are jams, jellies, chutneys, and relishes, tinned peaches, canned baked beans, a range of sauces, and of course, tomatoes (or is that tomatoes?)
George had a week off between the end of his old job and the start of his new one, so we decided to make the best of it and do a trial-run of picking and bottling tomatoes. First step – buy, wash, and sterilise the jars and lids we will need.
We went to Hartnell Farms last week (Wednesday August 21st, 2022). Unlike our last trip to Sauvie Island, the Hartnell Farms site is in Clackamas, and it’s a small urban farm.
In my personal recollection of the tomato plants my grandfather grew in his glasshouse, tomato plants are tall, and picking involves very little bending. George’s experience is the opposite – and he was right. The plants at Hartnell Farms are outside, and only about waist-high at the tallest.
We arrived right at opening time, 9am, on a day that was slated to have another heat warning. It would have been great to start picking at 7am, to really avoid the heat, but we did our best. It was “only” 25C in the shade when we arrived, and shooting up into the 30s by 10.30am when we finished.
I don’t handle heat well – I get heatstroke easily, which isn’t fair, given my Pacific Island heritage, but there you go. I guess the Scottish blood won out on that one. I hadn’t found a hat yet, so the heat and the bending had me feeling dizzy after the first half hour. I spent a lot of my time sitting in the shade, watching George work. If we’re bring genetics into it, his Italian heritage would certainly prepare him for hot work, picking San Marzano tomatoes in the summer sun.
One thing we found upsetting was the amount of blossom end rot on the ripest fruit – the farm says it’s common on the earlier tomatoes of the season, but I remember my friend Lee-Anne telling me it’s caused by lack of calcium in the soil, so I looked it up, and sure enough -it’s entirely possible that some large-scale equivalent of eggshells around the roots might have saved at least some of those poor tomatoes.
We had initially planned to only get Roma tomatoes, but there were only a few lanes of them, and they weren’t ready, so we started with the San Marzano variety, which George recognised. When there weren’t enough of them to fill more than one bucket, we switched to the “Celebrity” tomatoes and filled the other two buckets with them.
The tomatoes are late this year, so it took a while for us (well, mainly George, after the first bucket) to harvest the three 5-gallon buckets we ended up with. I watched one person walk into the Celebrity field, walk around pretty quickly, and leave with a full bucket (in about 15 minutes) but I’m not sure how careful or methodical he was about it.
George is much more systematic, and wants the best and ripest tomatoes. When we go to the supermarket, I have learnt to step back and let him select them, too – he grew up growing and bottling them with his family in New Jersey, and it’s not often that he asserts his knowledge in a field. In the case of tomatoes, he is definitely our household expert, and we both benefit from a tastier tomato.
The good thing about the Celebrity tomatoes, apart from there being a lot of them, was that they were much larger than the San Marzanos, so the peeling was going to be less arduous. The plants were also taller, which meant less bending.
After trying several times to come back out and help, and having to accept that it’s just too hot for me to work in the direct sunlight, I sat on a concrete breeze block in the shade and guarded the trolley with the other buckets, and watched George at work. It’s a lovely way to spend the time, and it was nice to just be outside for a bit. First thing on the agenda after this: buy a decent hat!
By the time 10.30 rolled around, the heat was beating back up at us from the baking earth, and George was gathering the last Celebrity tomatoes for the last 5-gallon bucket.
We headed back to the main barn building, and had a look at the other produce they had on offer. From what I could gather, Hartnell Farms sell both their own produce and harvests from other surrounding farms. The shop area is basically just a large shed with a lean-to attached, much like many of the farm stalls at the side of the road in rural New Zealand. There’s somewhere to wash your hands, which we appreciated, as they were covered in green **something**.
We didn’t want to load ourselves up with more fresh food than we could process, so we only bought a big basil plant this time around. In future, we will probably come here or to similar places to get our fresh food – it’s great to know exactly where it comes from.
Weighing the tomatoes brought home the reality of what was coming next – while I don’t think well in imperial measurements yet, I know that a lot of small women weigh around 100lbs, so 90lbs of tomatoes is basically a person. We were going to process a PERSON of tomatoes into jars, OMG.
Processing tomatoes – a tale in three parts
We wanted to be efficient with our time on George’s week off, so officially, we were scheduled to process the tomatoes on the same day we picked them. George pretty much swung straight into action, but even though I did my best to avoid it, I had mild heat stroke and had to just drink water and wait.
The plan was to bottle some whole, press some as passata, and make the rest into a sauce base to use for pizza, pasta, and soups.
George decided to process some of the Celebrities first, as they are bigger and easier to manage. I popped in an out, taking photos, so we had records of what he did:
- Blanch in boiling water
- Shock in cold water
Once there was a nice big pile of squashed tomato flesh, it was time to start putting it into the big mason jars. Although people usually just throw out the tomato water and seeds, we decided to add them into the sauce mix and render them down.
George picked up a canning set, including handy tools and a big pot with a frame that allows you to lower the jars into the water – and raise them back out. After using tongs to pull jars out last time, we didn’t feel comfortable about risking that again, so this felt a great deal safer.
At the end of day 1, there was still and intimidatingly large pile of tomatoes left to process.
Day 2 – further tomato processing
On the second day, I was still pretty badly affected by heat stroke, so while I did a small part of the work, George once again had the lion’s share of it.
I love how when he has set himself a task, George ploughs on until it’s finished, regardless of much work it takes. He did that again this time, getting through another massive batch of tomatoes. While he blanched and peeled them, I squashed them and George bottled the flesh.
I used a strainer to hold the herbs so that we didn’t have to worry about removing all the bits – it’s generally intended for mulling spices, but I think it worked just fine for herbs, too.
We finished the sauce together, using fresh herbs from the garden and the remaining tomatoes, and left it to simmer while the jars sealed.
Day 3 – bottling the sauce
On the third day, we brought the sauce back up to temperature and bottled it. It hadn’t thickened as much as I had hoped (probably because there wasn’t enough tomato flesh proportionate to the liquid), but it was flavoursome and dark.
It was a lot of work, and next time, we will probably try to find a tomato mill of some sort, but overall, I think it’s going to be very worthwhile.
Here’s the Adventures with the Drayers video episode about our tomato adventure. I hope you like it!