The first rule of Tomato Club is…

Ratatouille in a bowl… you DO talk about Tomato Club! Editor Abi McMahon spills the beans on why making books and growing tomatoes are more similar than you might think. 

Sometimes people ask you, ‘What is the best thing about working in publishing?’ On these occasions, you have to exercise self-control because instinctual answers include, ‘EVERYTHING EVER’ and, ‘Book creation in its entirety is a delight and a gift to this world’. These answers are both correct, but they’re not particularly helpful. Surely there is a Best Thing. There must be a high point, even in a process as exciting as book publishing. I’ve had a think about this over the years and I reckon I’ve discovered it.

The Best Thing is when you are sitting at your desk and you hear the knock of the delivery person. Then the slice of cardboard, followed by Steve’s voice saying that the advance copies are in. And then in your hands is a fresh, shiny new book. A precious book baby that you’ve loved from first draft through cover design, all the way to sending the final files. It has become a real book and returned to you.  YOUR DARLING HAS RETURNED! (Never, ever say this bit out loud because then people know that you’re a bit strange.)

Growing tomatoes feels very similar. Summersdale has had a Tomato Club for around four years now, and it’s amazing how similar publishing and gardening feel. First we all help plant our little tomatoes. Next is watering the plants and pinching off any shoots, pruning and encouraging the tomatoes to grow in the right direction. Then comes as the anxious waiting and hoping as the plants flower, grow into tomatoes and ripen.

That first harvest of roughly three red tomatoes feels like the biggest, most bountiful crop in the world. We generally divide the first few between the Tomato Club, passing them around and biting into them and marvelling at how they are sweet and ripe and we made them. Over the weeks, the sun puts his hat on more and more often and our tomatoes get bigger and redder. Then it’s time to feed the whole company.

Tomato Club has transformed the fruits of its labour into many different dishes over the years. We’ve had tomato tart, tomato soup and tomato salsa. We have a few colleagues with different dietary needs (myself among them, Difficult Vegetarian checking in) but to me that just adds a fun challenge. The tomatoes taste truest when kept fresh and uncooked, simply paired with the right ingredients to bring out their particular flavour. We grew three varieties this year: yellow cherry, plum and Octavia. The yellow cherries have been the triumph so far, ripening first and bringing a dash of colour and surprising sweetness to a ‘traffic light’ salsa. Traffic light salsa, by the way, is lime, green chilli, red and yellow cherry tomatoes and coriander. It is very tangy and very lively, just as summer should be.

RatatouilleIn late July the plums had their moment in the spotlight, while the Octavias held off until August to turn. We tried the plums and the last of the yellow cherries in another summer staple, a ratatouille salad. It’s a two-hander; one plate grilled red peppers, aubergine, courgette and plum tomatoes, the other a mix of raw cherry tomatoes, courgette, basil and parsley. If that’s all sounding too goody-two shoes, we served it with garlicky bread and goat’s cheese.

I experienced a real shot of euphoria when looking at those jaunty platefuls, a giddy pride I usually associate with holding the first advance of one of our books. Look! I want to shout. It’s the Best Thing! These tomatoes are really real. We grew them and turned them into a dish and now people are going to eat and be nourished by them. Surely this is human magic, this transmogrification of seed to lunch or words to book.