Shy Vegetables

The dogs are outside playing with a tennis ball they’ve shredded playing Tug of War I sit watching as I enjoy a cool iced lemon tea. The iPod shuffles and, Kids in America by Kim Wilde plays as a huge dragonfly skips over the pumpkin flowers that are in bloom. I glance over and spot a swollen fruit amid the orange flowers, I’m sure there was no burgeoning pumpkin there yesterday. One thing about growing vegetables here in Italy, is they seem to appear overnight, especially the courgettes (zucchini). I’m sure the courgette is a shy vegetable, because you spot the flowers and in amongst the huge leaves you see a tiny green fruit and no matter how often you check nothing seems to happen then one morning you just happen to notice a great, green baton sticking out, as if it’s swollen overnight.

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I’m particularly pleased with my tomatoes, I’ve only planted two plants this year; a bush variety that produces the typical long Italian fruit, known in the UK as plum tomatoes. For a while due to the cool spring they didn’t do very much, but now that the weather has been good both bushes are laden with fat fruits, that have only just started to redden. This year I won’t have enough to make passata, but I’ll have steady supply for salads and home-made pasta sauces. I may even combine them with some of my sundried chillies and store some pots of arrabiata sauce in the freezer, for a winter warmer later in the year.

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I have been harvesting basil as it’s been flourishing and have frozen it, although the leaf tends to darken during freezing and once defrosted looks dreadful it still tastes good in sauces. I’ve been very disappointed with the purple basil I’ve sown. It’s been very slow growing and hardly any of them have flourished into productive, bushy plants. The two things I’m looking forward to harvesting are the figs from the huge tree outside and the pomegranates that are swelling upon a bush we have inherited. Once the house is complete we shall begin work on restoring our land from a unproductive tangle of green into a fully functioning orto/allotment that will cater for most of our fruit and vegetable requirements throughout the year. Michele has already given me the benefit of his advice regarding the sowing of fava (broad) beans and I wonder, as cabbages do so well here, will Brussels sprouts hack it in the Italian countryside?

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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?