He plucked a small warm red orb from the vine and dropped it into my mouth. I bit down and with a caviar-like pop it released a sweet gush of sunshine across my tongue. With a grin I was transported back to my grandpa’s big old fruit and vegetable garden.
I was eight years old. It was a hot day and my heavy mane of shiny black hair was scorching to the touch from the brilliance of the sunshine. My Black Irish grandpa, gnarly and sun-beaten in his raggedy gardening trousers, checked shirt and dusty hat, and me - newly arrived in this peculiar suburban culture from London – dressed in terry towelling shorts, t-shirt and plimsolls, scrambling between the vines in furrows carefully groomed with back breaking precision. We picked only the lushest, ripest tomatoes for nana’s chutney.
Grandpa’s dozens of tomato plants had been transplanted carefully as seedlings into orderly rows and as they grew he had trussed them to tall, rough wooden stakes with a ragbag of nana’s old stockings. Lavishing hours of care and attention on them, he stole himself away from nana’s sharp tongue to hide amongst his plants.
The tomato seedlings had erupted and proliferated in their hundreds in my grandparent’s enormous compost heap and - thanks to grandpa’s thorough distribution of the compost - they had also sprouted throughout the garden, a consequence of purging the seeds from last year’s vast chutney making exercise. He had taken most of the little tomato plants and planted them into old milk cartons to be received gratefully by family, neighbours and the local thrift shop. The following spring I too would help with this task, filling my nails with warm dirt and my nose with the scent of Derris Dust.
With a nod, I was dismissed to the house. I washed the smell of the stalks from my hands with the garden hose and crept through the flywire door into nana’s dark kitchen with the last of the baskets brimming with red bounty.
It’s September. That’s spring in Melbourne and our cherry tomato vines are still fruiting and ripening. Is this a manifestation of global warming? I am amazed that they have continued right through the winter with no care, attention or fertiliser, in a self watering pot bound up with bird netting. They taste good, they are perfectly formed if a little on the small size, but totally acceptable for a salad.
I thank my lucky stars for this last crop; taken from withered, leaf barren vines. I place my precious little tomatoes into a Japanese ceramic bowl with rocket and wild fennel, resisting the urge to throw in the tiny Bocconcini di Mozarella, which might neutralise the flavour. After tossing the ingredients I season it, make an emulsion of honey, Dijon mustard and robust DanDaragan Estate olive oil then - as Antonio Carluccio would say - comes the vinegar. So simple a mix - and yet so satisfying - a bowl of spring-summer sunshine to flag the anticipation of the coming seasons.
As for my own chutney, I shall wait until deep in the tomato season when Mr Stickyfingers’ brother comes down from his home in Tatura with bags of the over ripe tomatoes that can’t be sold and the fallen green tomatoes that I shall put into curries inspired by my Thai aunt Che Seong. Mr Stickyfingers’ mother has kindly passed on her rusting Fowlers Vacola bottling unit to me in order to perpetuate the ongoing tradition of both our family’s annual chutney making exercise. It will be my first attempt. Now that will be an adventure in the making.