According to popular notion asparagus has some kind of cleansing effect on the human body, as is the case with many a springtime produce: dandelion, radicchio, artichokes – to name only the most obvious suspects. In terms of taste, the cultivated (garden) asparagus is not on the bitter side as opposed to wild asparagus, which is also thinner, but has a distinguished, typical flavour. And a particular smell too, which is manifested afterwards in the loo.
On everyday occasions, which family lunch or early dinner certainly are, I, not unlike many working women and men, tend to resort to staple dishes that can be whizzed through with no recipe, quickly and without an extra trip to the store. Every home cook has a selection of fail safe dishes up their sleeve that can save the day and feed the exhausted and famished loved ones.
Soon, the bricks and mortar of Florence were replaced by gentle hills of rural southern Tuscany. The weather, the food, the wine, the mood – everything mixed and moulded into perfect getaway.
People were picking olives on sunny slopes of olive groves with nets carefully laid under the trees. Every frantoio we passed was busy, the tractors parked at the entrance waiting to unload the crates of precious fruit.
The white and dense steam was winding out of the chimneys of local distilleries producing the intoxicating grappa.
It seemed that everyone was busy except for us, who loitered around the fruitful landscape, marvelling at the beauties around us. In reality though, the fact was that many other tourists anywhere we went and everywhere we turned surrounded us. The fantastic autumn days were too perfect to not be spent up and about.
We saw gorgeous persimmon trees, still leafy and dotted with golden fruit, and many pomegranate trees and bushes laden with fruit – how the slender and thin branches of that length can carry that heavy fruit is beyond me.
The vineyards were turning from green to yellow to deep red. The work there ceased after the harvest but it’s far from done. The rose bushes in the pole position of the rows were still in bloom although already showing the lines of exhaustion after a long season.
Oh, the late afternoon sunlight of Val d’Orcia! It painted the deepest rose-gold nuances ever and cast the longest shadows. The line for roasted marroni in the main piazza of Pienza was too long but my man was anyway on a quest to get equipped with all necessary utensils for home roasting. Call him crazy but our home kitchen is now proudly enriched with a proper chestnut roasting pan and even a pair of scissor-like taglia castagne (blimey, I didn’t even know such a thing existed). Plus, there are still about two kilos of Tuscan marroni sitting on the cool windowsill.
Thanks to our delighful host at Il Sassone I got to cut her pomegranates to take home. There’s a special treatment for you. Thank you again, Simona. Back home, their olive oil almost freaked me out for its crazy colour, it’s the spookiest shade of green I’ve seen so far. The freshest too. Tastes like heaven. Their wine is a staple in our household anyhow. Their jams are kept hidden behind the tins of fagioli and pickles in our pantry just to secure they last longer.
Since it’s autumn, the season of harvest and abundance, I’ll brag about my own little harvest: our own home grown lemon tree bore its first fruit! Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Ms Peachy.
Last but not least, I was really upset to have missed the exceptional exhibition on arte della natura morta in Villa Medicea in unprepossessing Poggio a Caiano. It’s the only museum of its kind in Italy and it houses the Medici collection of still life paintings that was never exhibited because it was for many years buried in Uffizi’s and Palazzo Pitti’s depots. Unfortunately, we missed the appointed hour and couldn’t wait for the next one but did take a walk around the immense renaissance villa and its gorgeous (citrus) garden. There’s a perfectly legitimate reason for a return visit if I needed one!
Sagre Toscane a good site for gathering the info on gastronomic events (and applying them to your itinerary accordingly)
Roughly the itinerary for this trip: after a weekend in Florence, an early evening stop in Siena for a coffee break, then via Roccastrada to peaceful Maremma where we unpacked (Massa Marittima for instance is spectacular), the next day Montalcino, Pienza and festa della castagne in Sassofortino. Finally, upon returning home via coastal raccordo, passing the beautiful Bolgheri along the way, we stopped in Poggio a Caiano before getting our teeth into packed autostrada Firenze-Bologna again.
I read some very good books in the past few months but the first prize, so far, goes to The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee. The way by which I was pulled into its contents is to put it mildly empowering.
Using the TV analogy, it’s the grandest documentary on such a prosaic subject as citrus growing. Well, as prosaic as a book on growing anything might be, actually, to a person not deeply connected with soil and its produce but only (or at least) caring about the simple facts of life: one has to drink, one has to eat, one has to sleep.
It’s much more than this; it is a monument to citrus and to Italy and what it represents. It is about the long and hard travels of the fruit, its holistic meaning through the eras of wealth and despair on every leg of the journey and how valuable it’s been to people.
There are thousands of different varieties of citrus but they all evolved out of three respectable ancestors. A few of the varieties have had a very special place within culturally and economically diverse parts of Italy and they still do. Citrus is an essential part of Italy, now I’m certain of it. Some of the most magical places in Italy are home to a child of a citrus family: Amalfi coast, Liguria, Sicily, Calabria, Garda, Tuscany. To every true lover of Italy this book is a must-read.
In practically every bar in Italy you can have a spremuta d’arancia, a freshly squeezed orange juice. There’s no doubt Italians have a very special relationship with them. Citrus rulz.
The writing is very gentle and well-balanced. The reader immerses in jaw-droppingly interesting stories about the Arabs, the Normans, the Jews, the Mafia, the Austrians and the Medici among others, and about the actual people of now, living their hard working lives surrounded by fabulous smell of zagara and delicious food. The book is also very informative: there are many historical and scientific facts along with the tender details about the food (rare ice-cream find in Turin or pasta with Amalfi lemons) and the landscape – it is certainly not your typical food book.
I will never again take poor old lemons or blood oranges & co. for granted. Before, I never really truly thought about them, consider them, you know. They’re simply always there at your disposal, omnipresent. But now I find myself even looking at them at the greengrocers’ with an attitude. I wonder about their provenance, the smell of their pre-fruit blossom, the vivid colours of their bumpy skins.
I’m a faithful reader of books: I never go on a trip without one and there is always more than one on my bedside cabinet. I cannot imagine going to sleep without reading at least half a page (I’m being joked about my waning reading stamina before turning in), I suppose reading is a sleeping pill to me, in a good sense, it makes my dreams more colourful. This book was a very pleasant companion and it takes a special place on the shelf.