In our garden, we have about a dozen grape and cherry tomato plants. It takes more work to pick them than with Big Boy or other large tomato varieties because you have to pluck fifteen or more of these little gems to equal one of the others. But we prefer them because the fruit is so much sweeter. We inadvertently planted them too close together, so they grew into an impenetrable tangle of interlaced green tendrils – a dozen plants became one, and happily have been giving us sweet, red beads of fruit since mid-July.
Now it’s September, and the season is dwindling. We’ve already seen a couple of nights with temperatures in the low 50s – threatening to go lower. So before fall officially arrived Sunday at 4:44 p.m., I went out to pick the last tomatoes of the season. The sky was pure blue, with the temperature around 70, and a light breeze – the kind of afternoon where you knew that if the sun wasn’t beating down on you, it would feel chilly. But when the breeze died down, and I turned my face to the sky, I could pretend for a moment it was still full summer.
From ten feet away, the green tangle was generously sprinkled with dots of red – meaning lots of tiny ripe tomatoes waited to be harvested. I grabbed a big bowl and set to work – working my way along the length of the garden, one arm’s width section at a time. I took the blood red ones, and even slightly yellow ones too, knowing those won’t ripen anyway in the last warm days and cooler nights ahead. And I left behind hundreds of hard green nuggets that will never see the table. But nothing’s wasted – in late October, after the first hard frosts, we’ll chop those up along with the spent vines, and throw them into the compost pile to make fertilizer for next year.
At each stop, I picked in a vertical column, top to bottom – first those nearest the top of the canopy that I could reach standing up. Before depositing each one in the bowl, I pinched off its top, littering the ground around the plants with green caps and stems. Then I kneeled and reached under the plants, ducking my head between them and reaching upward into the crowded green canopy, pushing aside, and untangling the ropy threads to find the pink pearls hiding beneath the leaves. I heard the high-pitched kamikaze-whine of mosquitoes, roused from their midday torpor, buzzing at my ears. My hands were full, and I couldn’t swat – I’d deal with the itching later.
After combing through the middle of the canopy looking upward, I turned to the lower branches and the ground, where tomatoes I had dropped or jostled from their stems lay waiting in the cool shade to be gathered up. By the time I stood up 45 minutes later with a slightly sore back and sandy knees, my bowl was full. To top things off, I moved to the fig tree, and plucked five figs – plump and brown – still warm from the sun.
Despite all their vibrant flavor and color, taking the last tomatoes of summer from the vine is bittersweet. In a few brief days there will be no more. For all plants and creatures and seasons, time runs its course.
But for now, we celebrate. I brought the bowl inside, discarded those that had hidden wormholes or other defects, and counted the take: three one-quart containers full, 300 or more succulent red berries in all.
Time to make tomato salad:
- 2 to 3 cups grape or cherry tomatoes (probably one of those quart containers full), sliced in half. This takes time, but it’s worth it, releasing all the sweet juices and tender seeds.
- 3/4 cup chopped scallions.
- 1 – 2 tablespoons chopped basil (or a few teaspoons of dried basil, if that’s
- all you have).
- 1 – 2 tablespoons dried rosemary, crushing the stems in your hands.
- 1/4 cup each of extra-virgin olive oil, white vinegar, and sherry.
Play with the proportions of the spices and liquid ingredients to suit your palate. Toss all ingredients and season to taste with kosher salt. Let it sit for an hour or more to let the flavors mingle. Serve with warm crusty Italian bread, sweet butter, and a glass of red wine. Repeat red wine as needed.
Ti saluto, another fine summer.