Vermont cooks and gardeners can get a little obsessed. We spot one another across a room and pull off to the side to swap stories and how-tos and what-ifs. We prowl Field Days in search of secrets to those blue ribbons. After all, we’re trying to grow better carrots and tweak that recipe for chocolate cake. We’re insatiable learners. We’re tinkerers. And, yes, we’re show-offs.
I’m so eager to improve just about everything about my gardening and cooking that when we go on vacation — you know, that time when I should be doing anything but cooking and gardening — I drag my family through food stores and farmers’ markets and along garden walls wherever we are to see what and how and why people grow and fix food the way they do in this place or that. My husband, Bill, knows that when we return home, he’ll have a long list of building projects ahead of him based on my discoveries.
Last month I hit the jackpot in Puglia, a beautiful region in southern Italy: four days with the Sicilian family of my daughter Elizabeth’s partner Emilio. They grow their own olives, citrus, grapes, and just about every herb or vegetable you’ve ever tasted in Italian cooking. And what’s more, they’re passionate cooks.
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They arrived at the little house we had rented with their car overflowing with the bounty of the current harvest: boxes of lemons, oranges, peppers and a trash bag filled with plump artichokes; preserves from last year’s harvest: olive oil, wine, sun-dried tomatoes, caponata, dried herbs; and gifts from their neighbors: a bucket of fresh ricotta, hard sheep cheeses, long coils of sausage, eggs. They were ready to cook. And I was their eager student. Aprons on.
Each morning at dawn, Enzo, Emilio’s father, walked the neighboring olive grove to gather wild fennel, asparagus or greens from its edges, shaggy places of wildflowers and edibles surrounding stands of trees in the naked soil. Nothing, he told me, should compete with the olives for nutrients. I thought of my Vermont fruit trees and the small dirt circles around their bases keeping the field grasses out. I thought of my vow not to forage from the land, leaving the wild to the wild. But it was different here — the wild was not exactly wild, not exactly cultivated either, but left in the in-between as important food sources for the human sort.
When he returned from his walk, Enzo and his wife, Marinella, and their daughter Martina planned the day’s cooking around the combination of the gathered and the Sicilian. This particular morning he brought an armload of wild asparagus to place in a pot of water simmering on the stove, stirred by Marinella, who added onion, salt and saffron for baddotte, a Sicilian specialty: ricotta-rice balls cooked in wild asparagus broth.
As the broth cooked, we mixed and rolled the balls of ricotta, eggs, cooked Arborio rice, parmesan, salt and bread crumbs with our hands. With Elizabeth translating, I exclaimed at the small number of ingredients and the beauty of the process, at how fun it was to work together. At dinner I marveled over the flavors — how incredible a meal! They smiled, amused and pleased. But it wasn’t extraordinary to them. It was just their way to eat well and frugally and in season, caring for the earth, the plants, their family.
As we ate, we swapped stories and I pulled out packets of seeds I had brought for them: dill (I warned about its spreading ways), Jacob’s Cattle beans, sugar pumpkins, kabocha squash, Thai hot peppers and jalapeños. Unable to read English, they turned the packets over and over in their hands, marveling at the pictures, asking what they were and how to grow them and how to cook with them. Their delight was as palpable as mine.
The next night we moved operations outdoors to the wood-fired pizza oven and barbecue built into the wall of the stone house. In addition to pizza and meat, we cooked the artichokes outside in a bed of ashes. How simple the preparation, how delicious the result! I’ll never fix them any other way from now on: salt and olive oil stuffed in between the opened flower leaves mingled with the ashy taste of wood.
I learned much from Emilio’s family and others during that month: about trellising practices and growing legumes among fruit trees, about proper sizing of outdoor ovens, about shifting to perennial vegetables and fruits to save labor and to disturb the earth as little as possible, about balancing the fewest of ingredients to make a winsome whole. I was reminded of simple marketing by a farmer driving his tiny open-backed truck through the village, the bed piled high with artichokes, a loud-speaker attached to the roof, he driving slowly while calling through the microphone carciofi carciofi (artichokes, artichokes) in a rich baritone voice, stopping to sell them at this house and that. The Italian version of an ice cream truck.
And so how am I integrating these lessons around our place? Much as I’d like to grow olives and lemons, I really hope climate collapse never makes that possible in Vermont, so I’m limiting myself to more reasonable adjustments and experiments such as growing lots and lots and lots of artichokes. To continue the move towards perennials, we’re planting grape vines instead of corn. We’re erecting new trellises for the tomatoes and beans, and re-shaping the orchard, which of course, I’ll make visitors admire and listen to me blather on about. And Bill will build a wood-fired pizza oven and barbecue with Enzo’s input. Oh, and I’m on the look-out for a tiny truck with an open bed, so if you know of one…