Monday, September 28, 2009

Self-sufficiency … in tomatoes ?
A chap from Brighton (where we used to live) got in touch recently, asking if, on a forthcoming house-hunting trip to Brittany, he could come to see us for a cup of tea and a chat about our permaculture smallholding. He and his wife are considering a move to France, hoping to reduce their outgoings by producing [some of] their own food. He mentioned the phrase “self-sufficiency”, which has got us thinking. It’s never been a goal of ours to be totally autonomous. For sure, we’ve got a well-thumbed copy of John Seymour’s The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency and I’ve read and been inspired by his autobiographical Fat of the Land but we’ve never aspired to produce all that we eat, just proportionally much more than we ever used to.

Why not self-sufficiency then? We drink milk but, for about a pint a day, do we need to add a cow to our already populous menagerie with all the fuss and palaver of providing it with adequate pasture, getting it in calf, milking it every day, etc? Bread then? Yes, homemade bread is wonderful stuff and, during the baking, makes a house smell so dough-licious but we have our own village bakery. And a village baker needs to sell bread or shut up shop, leading to a very quiet village. Cheese? With such an amazing variety of cheeses produced all over France, why would I want to restrict our larder to just one type of amateurish homemade cheese?

Not totally self-reliant then but certainly producing fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat, firewood for all our heating needs and extras such as a very warm but incredibly rustic Russian hat made by the omni-competent Gabrielle from our own rabbit skins and felt from wool off the backs of our own sheep. It did get us thinking though and, as Gabrielle has this week been mainly preserving tomatoes, we wondered what would be involved in making ourselves self-sufficient in just this one commodity: only eating our own preserved tomatoes, running out of jars on the day we started to harvest the first fresh toms of next year.

A self-sufficiency trial, tomato-stylie, would involve an audit of how many tomatoes we eat and how we use them throughout the year. Somewhat conveniently, I have no problem buying fresh toms in December, even if I find it strange to see strawberries for sale then, both being equally unseasonal. Summer afflictions of warm, overcast humid days lead quickly to blight and so we’ve moved the bulk part of our tomato cultivation into our single polytunnel. How many plants, how much covered growing area would we need to provide a year’s worth of Gardeners’ Delight, Brandy Wine, Sungold and other favourite varieties? And then there’d be a cost comparison as supermarkets in England used to sell (perhaps still do?) “budget” tins of plum tomatoes for an unfeasibly small price. Being self-sufficient in toms might actually end up costing more, which sort of defeats the idea that “self-sufficiency” means you spend less. It’d take a huge quantity of tomatoes to pay back the cost of a polytunnel. (Don’t shout at me, I accept that cost isn’t the only thing to consider, we’re producing tastier and probably healthier crops.)

And so to preservation: We have previously frozen passata but that takes up valuable, energy-consuming freezer space. This year, following instructions from Katerine, the chicken farmer’s wife and one of Gabrielle’s favourite books, Preserving by Oded Schwartz, Gabrielle’s been harvesting, chopping, simmering, sieving and bottling in Kilner jars, then heat processing them by boiling the sealed jars for twenty minutes. The high pressure forces bubbles past the rubber sealing ring, so when the jars cool down, they become vacuum sealed.

There are just a few more weeks of fresh tomatoes left this season before we’ll have to open the first of those jars of passata. Will we be self-sufficient in toms? I very much doubt we’ll be able to resist buying fresh toms before next years plants start producing but it will be interesting to see how long our stored passata lasts. (The photo below proudly shows off one of our own delicious Cuore di Bue.)

To follow: red mites in the henhouse and our new, beautiful grey water treatment system.