Sunday, December 28, 2008

Remember that Pumpkin?

That single solitary Kent pumpkin? The paltry end result of three vines producing a zillion male flowers and only one female flower over an entire summer?

It sacrificed itself in a very good cause - lunch on Christmas Day:

And it was scrummy. Nothing roasts as wonderfully as a Kent pumpkin.

More next summer, please, Garden God.

You know it really is winter ...

... when the first snow falls on your Tuscan garden.

The strawbs snuggle up under their fleece blanket:

The broad beans tough it out:

As does the garlic:

And the lemon tree shivers inside its overcoat:

In five months time, it will be 35C.

Variety is the spice.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

One good thing about winter

Harvesting parsnips!

In Italian, parsnip is known as pastinaca. But try to find one anywhere in central or southern Italy. They're virtually unknown. Lorenzo, our neighbour, didn't even recognise the photo on the seed packet. His wife, Marina, did. She had seen them in Prague. But never tried them.

They're known in the north, especially around Parma, because they're fed to the pig population, source of the glorious Parma ham. A noble cause, but the locals don't know what they're missing out on.

I feel a bit like Emperor Tiberius. It's said that he brought parsnips to Rome from France and Germany.

Well, a couple of thousand years later, I'm bringing them to central Italy.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Grey, Damp and Chilly

It's autumn. It's seriously autumn. The occasionally sunny day, but mostly grey, the air heavy with moisture, and nothing above 10° Celsius.

The strawberries are already under cover:

That's a double layer of fleece. Should see them through till spring.

Next door to the strawbs, the Florence fennel is going gangbusters:

Late-summer into autumn is the only time to grow Florence fennel around here. Spring-planted, it bolts as soon as the summer heat arrives.

Up on the second terrace, next year's garlic supply has not only been planted, it's already up:

The shortest day of the year - December 21st in these parts - is traditionally the garlic-planting date. I start earlier in order to give them a head start before the serious cold hits. I bought White Italian seed garlic from the local Agricolo or agricultural supplies store.

And, from experience, I selected and planted only the fattest, healthiest cloves. Growing garlic really is a case of harvesting what you sow. Plant skinny, shrivelled cloves and that's what you'll harvest.

Next door to the garlic, for the heck of it, I've established a test-planting of Savoy cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli:

It's a test because I didn't bother trying to grow anything - apart from garlic - over last autumn and winter. The fact is, the garden is south-facing and sees no sun at all after early October because the sun, low in the sky, never gets above the medieval wall that forms our back fence. Such is the price of a medieval back fence.

In the same experimental vein, I've planted an early variety of broad beans:

They will cope with the low temperatures, whether they'll cope with the lack of sun is a different matter. Thus far, fair enough. And, yes, I need to weed.

The English Spinach, next door to the broad beans, are equally in need of a weed:

Meanwhile, on the top terrace, L'Artista's penchant for black figs has been addressed:

I established this baby from cuttings taken from a friend's black fig tree earlier this year. I've also planted it in what amounts to a bottomless box - the roots contained on four sides by large tiles buried on their edge. The theory goes that containing a fig's roots produces a more compact tree and superior fruit production. We shall see.

It, along with its mates, spent its first couple of months on the terrace in pots of barely moist potting mix, out of the hot sun, partly enclosed in a plastic shopping bag to create a sympathetic, slighty humid growing environment.

Eventually, with root structures developed, the plastic bags came off and the babies were left to develop:

The one on the left is the one I've planted. Of the other two, one is for a friend's garden and the third is a spare.

Roll on the black figs.

And roll on spring!

Olive Stuff

Which isn't to say Stuffed Olives. But you can.

This is our token Tuscan olive tree:

It's had a curious history with us. Two autumns ago, our first year here, it fruited. If not bountifully. L'Artista managed to pickle a single small jar of olives.

Last autumn, zero. Zilch. Zip. I investigated. There is, apparently, a syndrome that causes olive trees only to fruit every two years. I still don't understand it. Why should today be different?

Be that as it may, this year, after some deft pruning and other appropriate care, it coughed up a surprising number of the little beggars:

And here, for your edification, is L'Artista's quick and handy guide to pickling olives.

First, use a sharp knife to slice into each olive, creating just enough of a slit to allow the brine solution to penetrate:

Next, tip the prepared olives into a container large enough to hold all the olives and the brine solution:

That's them in the container with coarse salt, the beginnings of the brine solution. The brine solution is 1/2 cup of coarse salt to 10 cups of water allowing sufficient water to cover completely the olives.

Cover the container.

Next day, drain the brine solution, replace it with fresh solution and cover the container. To save having to measure out the water each time, mark the water level on the container and fill it to that level. Repeat the draining, replacing and covering process every day until the olives have lost their bitterness.

As a rule of thumb, black olives take around 10 days, green olives around 12. Towards those deadlines, try the taste test on an olive. If there's still too much bitterness, give it another day, draining and replacing the brine solution. Or another few days. Until they're right for you.

When you're satisfied, sterilise your storage jars by submerging them in boiling water for 5 minutes.

Drain the olives and transfer them to the sterilised jars.

To preserve the olives, prepare a brine of 1 cup of coarse salt to 10 cups of water. Bring the solution to the boil, then cool. Add the cooled solution to the jars to cover completely the olives:

Then, to protect the olives from any air, add 1cm of olive oil:

Until you're looking at this:

Screw the lids tightly onto the jars and store them until you feel the urge for some home-pickled olives.

When the time comes, drain the oil and brine solution from a jar, fill the jar with cool water and place in the refrigerator for 24 hours before eating.

Maybe even drizzled with good quality EVOO and some fresh herbs.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

When too much Basilico isn't enough

Last year, with a poultice of basil in the garden and winter rapidly approaching, L'Artista kept promising to do something about it. No sense letting lovely fresh basil go to waste.

No Sirrrrrreeeeee, Roberto.

She promptly let it all go to waste, shrivelled and blackened by the cold.


This year, I've taken charge:

Thus we have plenty of Pesto. Fresh, stored under oil in the fridge for immediate use, with the balance in the freezer, in variously sized portions, minus the reggiano, pecorino and butter, which will be added when the Pesto is thawed for use.

Go you good thing, Pesto.

Pumpkins Shmumpkins Redux!

Sure enough! Yesterday I was prowling the pumpkin patch, railing against the dearth of female flowers and subsequent lack of pumpkins, and what do I find?


And, yes, that's another one developing to its left. And, what's more, there was also this:

Two fat female flowers -

- and nary a male flower in sight. Not even a glimmer of the prospect of one. Not, now, that it matters anyway. It's late October, the patch is in permanent shade, autumn chill is announcing itself, too late for a pumpkin to grow from scratch.

Hence these potential pumpkins will wither, shrivel and die.

Alongside their chances of being planted again next season.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Pumpkins Shmumpkins!

As I might have vented before, one of the frustrations for pumpkin lovers in Italy - by which I mean lovers of roasted pumpkin, pumpkin with rich flavour, firm flesh and a decent sugar content, at least enough to caramelise the pumpkin in the roasting pan - is that Italian pumpkins, on the whole, are watery, soft-fleshed things, prone to turning to mush in the oven.

So one does the only sensible thing. One grows the real thing. One imports from Australia seeds for the Kent pumpkin, one of the truly fine roasting varieties.

One plants three vines. Two, to ensure pollination, and a third for luck.

What one doesn't expect, and what pisses one off immensely, is that the three vines should produce a grand total of one female flower over the course of the summer. Of course pumpkins need a male flower and a female flower and an inquisitive insect to orchestrate what might delicately be called pumpkin rumpy-pumpy.

A zillion male flowers on their own are useless. Except for stuffing with goats cheese and herbs, dipping in a light batter, deep-frying and eating, but that's grist for another blog-post mill.

Here are the vines:

Miles of vines, zillions of male flowers.

And here's the end result of their summer of travail:

One female flower that produced one single, solitary pumpkin.

Enough to make one spit chips.

Or even pumpkin seeds.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Using up Zucchini

We're suffering a bit of a glut of the delicious Romanesco Zucchini. Even after doling them out to neighbours, they keep accumulating.

So I revisited an old recipe for Spaghetti con Zucchini.

Very very simple. Take your trimmed zucchini and an old-fashioned box grater:

Grate the zucchini using the biggest holes on the grater:

Drop a good knob of butter and some peeled, chopped garlic into a large pan:

When the butter has melted and taken the flavour of the garlic, toss in the grated zucchini and stir it around. The key is not to cook down the zucchini to a pulp. It should have texture to it. The process should take no longer than five or six minutes:

Season the zucchini to taste, then drain your cooked pasta - you can use spaghetti, linguine, bucatini, any of the thinner pastas - and add it to the zucchini in the pan:

Stir thoroughly to mix very well.

Then serve:

I've tried it with and without parmesan. I think parmesan renders the dish gluggy.

All it needs is a grinding of black pepper and a drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Go for it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Tomato Genetics

They're weird things. Particularly when it comes to Heirloom tomatoes.

This is a Cherokee Chocolate, fresh from the vine today:

It's a lovely mahogany-brown colour. Here's the underside:

It's also a delicious tomato - earthy, juicy, with just a touch of sweetness.

It's a tomato with a fascinating history. This is its very closely relative, Cherokee Purple:

And they're extremely closely relatives. Because Cherokee Chocolate literally sprang from the loins of Cherokee Purple.

A number of years ago, Craig LeHoullier, an American grower and heirloom tomato expert, discovered a mahogany-brown tomato on his Cherokee Purple plant. Intrigued, he saved seeds from the brown tomato and grew them out the next season. Again, he saved seeds from the brown tomatoes that eventuated and grew them out the following season. Eventually, he stabilised the tomato variety now known as Cherokee Chocolate.

All the result of a spontaneous mutation of the colour gene in a Cherokee Purple tomato.

Lo and behold, the magic didn't stop there. Subsequently, one of Craig's Cherokee Chocolate plants threw up a green-when-ripe tomato, now stabilised and named Cherokee Green.

I have my fingers crossed for the Tomato God to work his genetic tricks in my tomato patch.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

First Toms

It's been a strange tomato growing season.

Well, so was last year. Last year's summer was achingly hot and bone dry. My tomato crop was miles below par - not much fruit and a lot of it stunted. I wasn't alone. Adriana, who runs a commercial market garden just outside the town walls, had exactly the same problem. She didn't have enough tomatoes - or any other vegies, for that matter - to supply her regular customers.

This year, spring was the coolest and wettest in either 20 or 200 years. Depending to whom you speak. Suddenly, though, in mid-June, the daytime temperatures shot from an average 18C to around 30C. We somehow missed the 20s altogether.

The result? The plants that had started to set fruit were all right. Those that hadn't, struggled in the sudden, intense heat. End result? They weren't setting fruit:

The luckier ones did:

The yellows on the top RHS are Jaune Negib, a French heirloom. They're a very early variety - usually around 60 days from planting out - and their major flavour attribute is a lovely creamy aftertaste. Most very early varieties - Stupice and the like - are usually flavour-deficient because, developing and ripening quickly, as their genes insist they do, they simply don't have the time to develop real flavour or complexity. They're really only worth growing if you have a very short growing season and later varieties aren't viable. Jaune Negib, though, is rare amongst very early varieties because they do have something to offer in the flavour department. Even if I only grow them for L'artista to turn into yellow tomato chutney.

The gold/orange pair - one its usual golf-ball size, the other a freak midget - at the bottom are Jaune Flammée, yet another French heirloom. A lovely, much overlooked tomato with a fresh, very tangy flavour. The surprise is that they matured as early as they did. Normally they take longer than Jaune Negib.

The two red cherry tomatoes are actually conjoined Camp Joy (aka Chadwick's Cherry):

Siamese tomatoes. Take two tomato blossoms extremely close together, have them both fruit at the same time, and the resultant tomatoes can fuse together. Grow enough tomatoes and you'll see plenty of conjoined ones. These two are smaller than the usual Camp Joy, hence they ripened earlier than Camp Joy usually does. They normally takes up to 75 days. Here's one ripening on the vine:

I've grown most of the well-known cherry varieties over the years and I keep coming back to Camp Joy (aka Chadwick's Cherry) for their genuine flavour, reliability and huge crops.

Now I have my fingers crossed for the stragglers to start setting fruit.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Meanwhile, Up on The Top Terrace

The air is thick with the sounds of stuff growing in the shadow of the medieval fortress wall.

Brussel Sprouts and Sweet Corn:

Watermelon (on the left, being grown for Lorenzo next door) and Jap (aka Kent) Pumpkins, the seeds for which I imported from Australia on the basis that Italian pumpkins just don't seem to grasp the notion that they should be able to be roasted till they caramelise without turning to mushy pulp:

And there's already movement in the Watermelon camp:

Lorenzo has seen it.

And approved.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

If You're Ever Going to Grow Zucchini ...

Grow these:

The variety is Romanesco, used in a lot of better restaurants for their wonderful slightly nutty flavour.

I've sliced them across very finely, raw, and tossed them into salads.

I've sliced them thinly lengthwise with a mandolin and chargrilled them, tossing them with some mint, garlic, vinegar and oil for an antipasto.

I've finely diced and braised them with some garlic, mint, Italian parsley, marjoram and finely-chopped lemon zest and spread them on chargrilled bread as a bruschetta.

The only downside to growing them is that you need space. Lots and lots of space.

Like at least this amount:

So dig up that waste of space of a lawn and plant these.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Talking about onions

Here's part of the first harvest:

Not paint on paper. The real thing.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Looking at a Red Onion

The Gardener grew it, I painted it. He'll cook it, I'll eat it. Isn't life perfect?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


A brief digression from the history of this garden on the basis that re-living the hernias and broken back involved in restoring the thing has caused me to come over quite faint.

Pomodori, which is to say, tomatoes, are going to feature quite heavily here. Why? Because they're my vegetable preoccupation. Actually, fruit preoccupation, because, scientifically, a tom is a fruit. In the kitchen it's deemed a vegetable, scientifically it's a fruit. I'll go with the popular flow here and deem it a vegetable.

My particular preoccupation is with heirloom tomatoes. The beauty of heirlooms is that, unlike hybrids, which will normally produce tomatoes of the same size, shape, colour and taste year after year, because they've been bred to do so, growing heirlooms offers challenge.

They can be erratic in terms of production. They can throw up, to varying degrees, different shapes and sizes, and even shades of colour. Sometimes even different colours altogether. But more of that at some later date when I'm, once more, faint.

The tomato I always grow, the tomato to which I'm most attached, is this one:

Despite how it looks on your monitor, it's actually a very dark pink rather than red. And it has a history.

It's called Pink Gaetano because that's what I named it. It would, originally, have had a name, but that name is lost in the mists of Italian time.

I learned Italian in Australia. My Italian teacher's father emigrated to Australia from Calabria in the 1950s. He took the seeds for this tomato with him. He used to grow it in his backyard in Calabria and continued to grow it in his backyard in Melbourne, saving seeds, keeping the variety pure. When Antonella, my teacher, discovered I grew tomatoes, she asked her father for seeds and passed them onto me.

His name for them? Sangue. Italian for blood. He didn't know their varietal name. His name was Gaetano, so I named the variety after him. It's a lovely tomato with a rich, nicely complex flavour. The plant thrived in the heat and humidity of Sydney with, unlike a number of varieties, no problems setting fruit in extreme conditions. Hence it loves Italy.

Beyond the name, the tomato's actual origins are a genuine mystery. It's a dark pink beefsteak variety with some degree of ribbing. Extensive research revealed that there are no known dark pink Italian heirloom beefsteak tomatoes. Yet it was grown in a Calabrian backyard. It might be that the original seeds came from elsewhere in Europe. Eastern Europe, in particular, has produced any number of dark pink beefsteak varieties.

Regardless, fifty-odd years after Gaetano took the seeds to Australia, I brought them back to Italy.

Here's this season's plant in the garden after about six weeks in the ground:

Which reminds me: I'm getting low on seeds and I'll have to save some more this season.

Salute, Gaetano!