Ants in Your Plants

It’s been very hot here these past few days, Italy has had a mini heat-wave, but this morning it’s quite cool. I check on the plants growing in my mini orto. There’s some more courgettes, young and tender that need to be picked and a couple of tomatoes have donned their red jackets, so they can come out of the plot, a couple of white onions are a good enough size to harvest . I notice that ants have taken up residence my cayenne plant and as I pick a couple of the orange chillies they dash across my fingers eager to protect. I’m not worried by this, it’s rural Italy and a few ants wont ruin my day. As I walk back to the house the iPod shuffles and the strains of Hungry like the Wolf, by Duran Duran drift out into the Italian countryside.

Back inside the kitchen with my collected bounty I set to, preparing it for storage. I chop it all up and add a couple of garlic cloves, I sweat the onions off and then add the courgettes followed by the chillies and tomatoes, last to hit the pot is the garlic. I add a little water and let it simmer away until the contents of the pan have softened. I don’t season with salt and pepper as I’m going to divide the mixture once cold and freeze it.

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Now cold, the mixture is divided up into three portions and popped into the freezer and now I have a sofrito base for three pasta sauces that I can use when the season has ended. A few minutes in the morning will save me a few euros in winter time, and the memory of a summer morning will be released into the saucepan.

Devilishly Hot

One of the best things about living in Italy is the longer growing season. Back in the UK there was; during a good summer, a sixteen week window for growing tomatoes, chillies and aubergines. These would mostly need to be grown in a greenhouse to maximise crop yield, however the climate here means they can be planted outside, and plots of land with rows of tomatoes growing is as commonplace here as cabbages in Lincolnshire fields.

I have to admit to having never been a very successful grower of chillies back in England, I could never seem to get it right. The plants would start off well, then just either go spindly and die or just flatly refuse to produce anything. Here it’s a different story, one small 99 cent, cayenne plant can be left to do its own thing and as long as it gets a daily drink it’ll produce little fiery pods of heat. I tend to pick the cayenne chilli just before they go red and sun-dry them, preserving that little bit summer for a wintery evening’s dinner.

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I find they don’t retain their heat if they are dried once they have turned red, but do if picked and dried whilst still orange. Obviously the fresh ones when red are as hot as Beelzebub’s bath water, which is very apt, as they crop in mid-July, which according to 16th century belief, is the month that Beelzebub is at his most powerful, and at this time he tempts man to become a glutton. I’m not a great believer of this and assume that mankind is seen to be gluttonous solely because of the amount of fresh food that is cropping around this time of year. I assume people ate while food was plentiful, as the winter months would be lean.

To sun-dry them I put them out on a metal/foil tray and just let them sunbathe. Sometimes as the sun moves around the house I’ll move them so they get maximum exposure, but mostly I just leave them. I do however bring them in at night. One little piece of advice I’ll pass on is, if you do dry them in a foil tray, add a rock to the tray, in 2011 after two weeks of drying on my neighbours terracotta roof, my crop was ready for storing, as I went out to collect them a gust of wind came and blew the tray over and my chillies fell between the cracks in the tiles, never to be seen again.

 

This year I am also growing some of the longer red chillies, not quite so hot but nicely piquant and great if chopped up small and dropped into a salad with some mint, giving an occasional hit of heat amid the cool salad leaves. I purchased this chilli towards the end of the planting season, so was left with a leggy twelve centimetre plant, I watched my neighbour’s chillies closely and his grew to around fifty centimetres before he pinched out the top of the plants, I waited for mine to catch up and did the same. Now it’s filled out, no longer is it a lanky green single stem, it’s a bushy healthy plant with long green chillies hanging from it. I’m hoping these will be ready to harvest in August, which incidentally is Astaroth’s month, another of the Seven Princes of Hell, the demon who bring laziness to mankind. Or could that just be the late summer sun?