Vegging-Out In The Orto

Last time out in this series of jottings not about that nice pile of stone/brick/blocks you’re going to turn into the forever home, but about the land that’ll invariably go with it, I told you about what I can grow – and what I definitely can’t grow – in my Abruzzo orchard.

Now, we leap over the hedge from the orchard into the orto – the veggie patch. Much smaller than the orchard – about 250sqm – and much more labour-intensive. With our unforgiving soil and climate, you go into veg growing with your eyes wide open. There are no easy options. It’s hard work – and if you get it wrong, that’s the year’s crop gone.

And unlike a fruit tree – which’ll still be there next year – with 99% of veggies, if you lose them – that’s invariably it. No second chances. And next year you’ll have to start all over again from scratch.

It’s true, there are a small number of perennial veggies – and I’m primarily talking artichokes and asparagus here – which will not only obligingly reappear again and again and again, but which’ll get better and crop more with each passing year.

Only problem is that in late spring/early summer each year, Italy’s weighed under by asparagus of supremely good quality and extremely low prices – with the artichoke season of equal abundance, (and again of top quality and miniscule prices), running roughly in parallel.

And in the six weeks or so when they’re around, you pig-out on these twin delicacies to the point were you ache for it to end.

(Probably just as well, because, when the artichokes and asparagus are gone – IT’S STRAWBERRY TIME !)

But I digress. Point being, the quality; quantity; availability; and price of asparagus and artichokes being what they are, it seems an exercise in total futility to grow your own.

That said, I do in fact grow one perennial veg. It’s called a cardoon – a member of the artichoke family. But I grow this not for eating, but for its vast 2m x 2m clumps of massive, felt-like, deeply-incised, grey-green architectural leaves, topped with huge, purple, thistle-like flowers.

The cardoon is a relative of the artichoke

It may look like a thistle on steroids, but this cardoon is a member of the artichoke family.
You can eat the more slender stalks. They’re delicious !

And yes, you can eat it. When the stems are of about thumb-thickness; cut some; slice them into 6-10cm lengths; peel them; steam them; and drizzle them with a little melted butter. They taste of artichoke !

Eventually, the clumps die down. Clear away the dead leaves; cut the woody stems down to ground level – and in a couple of weeks, new growth reappears and the cycle restarts.

And in addition to asparagus and artichoke, you can buy cardoon too. It’s very popular. And yes, I do accept absolutely that because you can buy pretty much any vegetable growable in Italy from a market stall or supermarket counter, it might seem you can save yourself an awful lot of time/trouble doing just that rather than growing growing your own.

But…(and it’s a fairly significant but)…the major and considerable plus points about growing your own are that you can pick/choose what you like best from the actual varieties of your chosen veg. And – unlike shop-bought produce – you have absolute control over how you raise your plants in terms of organic vs non-organic and how much pest control you exercise.

In September/October each year for over-winter and next year’s early-season crops; and from next spring for summer produce, the farm supply shops round here – plus specialist stalls in all the weekly markets – offer a huge range of young seedling plants for sale in all the major (and most of the minor) vegetable groups.

Home-based vegetable gardening round here’s done on a truly industrial scale. Way more than I’m prepared to do. Our friend Rocco annually plants a minimum of 200 tomatoes, which in late August/September the long-suffering Angela has to turn into passata.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg lettuce. Beans, spuds, corn, courgettes, pumpkin and onions are grown in prodigious quantities, ripped out as summer fades and replaced with winter-friendly leafy greens; broad beans for spring; and fennel. (Don’t get me started on fennel…)

Each little veg plantlet costs no more than 50¢ or less. But multiply that by a few hundred, and the outlay is prodigious.

Which is one of the reasons I grow my veg from seed. The others being because I can; I don’t actually want or need prodigious quantities of produce, which’d make growing from seed impractical; and because I genuinely enjoy it.

It’s become a bit of a nerdy obsession tbh, and I’m the slightly-abashed owner of not one, but two electric seed propagators into which I can cram everything I need

Aside from the satisfaction of sprinkling seed onto earth; watering it; and then tucking it up nice and warm until it comes to life – not to mention the anticipation that in a few months time, a tiny seedling will have grown into something good to eat – the twin over-riding considerations are that I can grow veggies that simply can’t be found in this part of Italy; and because I can grow exactly the varieties I want.

Not little plantlets whose major attribute is that they grown easily, uniformly; and keep well, but because – and only because – they taste supremely good.

In the ‘unobtainable in Italy’ category are parsnips, gown in tubs because they can’t cope with Abruzzo clay. There’s an Italian word for parsnip: pastinaca. But have I ever seen one here ? No. And what happens when I ask for a pastinaca ? Nothing. Zilch. Pastinaca ? Blank stare. Non capito

Parsnips growing in a tub.

I grow 6-8 parnsips to a big tub. And in 2015, I have four tubs – which’ll provide plenty of delicious parsnips for Christmas lunch ! Because parsnips simply can’t grow in our heavy clay soil, I find this method’s actually pretty successful. But they do need quite a lot of care and plenty of water in hot weather !

Can’t have Christmas lunch without pastinaca. The variety I currently grow is called Gladiator. It’s really good, but I think they’re all pretty much-of-a-muchness tbh.

Sprouts. I may possibly be the only person in the entire world who loves sprouts enough to grow my own. Yes, you can actually buy these here occasionally. But they’re big, flavourless things grown under glass in Holland, a world removed from anything grown out in the open, where they really do need a hard frost or two to fully develop their flavour.

I gave Rocco a handful of mine to try. Having rammed home the point they didn’t need cooking – as he suggested – for around 40 minutes, I wondered if he’d liked them. Oh yes, very nice. Little bit of oil. Little bit of garlic. Lovely ! Oil and garlic ? Really ? Well…OK…so…would he grow them himself ? Vigorous head shake. Absolutely not. Why ? Because they’re not traditional.

Well they are where I come from.

Beans. I have to admit, these are a massive disappointment. I’ve tried, I really have, to grow English Runner Beans. But it’s just too hot for them. You do get a few…just enough to remind you how delicious they are before the heat triggers some internal mechanism that stops then producing flowers.

French beans are readily available here – and good. I tried growing Borlotti beans this year – not great. Got half a jar of dried bullets which I’ll probably end up throwing away. Cannellini ? Why bother ? The canned ones are pretty good. Ditto Borlotti. I actually don’t think I’m going to plant any beans in 2016.

Sweetcorn. Massively successful. Can’t be too hot for corn – though still searching for an alternative to the wonderful Indian Summer variety, arbitrarily withdrawn from the market a couple of years ago because – I suspect – the kernels came in a kaleidoscope of red, orange, purple and black, rather than a uniform yellow.

Perhaps more than any other veg, home-grown corn is miles better than any shop-bought variety. Why ? As soon as you pick corn, its natural sugars start turning to starch. (A bit like peas in fact). But while peas are frozen within minutes of harvesting, corn isn’t – and by the time you see it on sale (and take it home, and maybe leave it a few more days before cooking it) it’ll be way past its best.

Grow a variety like Vanilla Sweet. Pick it and cook it right away – and you’ll see what corn really should taste like…

And tomatoes – now we’re talking ! And bearing in mind the number of varieties available as plantlets, here’s where personal tastes really do kick-in.

I grow four plants each of three distinct varieties – each for a specific purpose. Sungold – an orange-skinned cherry variety of the most intense sweet-sharpness. Perfect in salads and for just picking off the plants to eat like sweeties. The one reason it’s not available commercially is that the skins tend to split. Not a big issue if you’re picking/eating as demand dictates. But a definite minus when it comes to lasting for any length of time on a supermarket shelf.

Delcious, sweet cherry tomatoes

‘Sungold’ – one of the three varieties of tomato I grow each year.
These produce small, intensely-flavoured fruit.

Then there’s Lucciola – a miniature Italian plum tomato, bright red; very sweet; and with supernatural properties of remaining on the plants in a state of ripe perfection for an age. The go-to choice for a tomato and black olive salad – and for cooking. Really good – but seemingly not good enough for the Italian market, where a similar (though for me, inferior) variety called (I think) Datteri is #1 choice.

An Itaalian dwarf plum variety

Variety number two is an Italian dwarf plum tomato called ‘Lucciola’.
As well as being great to eat, they have excellent keeping qualities and will happily remain in peak condition on the tomato plant for weeks.

And Ruth. Maybe the jewel in the crown. Some five years ago, our friend Ruth gave us a couple of tomato plants she’d bought in a local market. A big, knobbly Italian variety that was so good, we’ve been saving seeds ever since to ensure our supplies. Neither Ruth – after whom we’ve named this find – nor us have ever seen anything like this tomato on sale anywhere else and don’t know whether it’s a ‘named’ variety, or just some chance seedling from a smallholder’s plot. It’s the only tomato for Bruschetta; and for tomato chutney; and for mixing with our others and dressed with our own oil and a good balsamic vinegar for the best salad you’ll ever eat.

There are – of course – endlessly available big, knobbly Italian tomatoes. I just like this one best.

A bruschetta with our home-grown tomatoes.

Bruschetta made using our home-grown ‘Ruth’ variety.
Toasted bread, rubbed with garlic; buffalo mozzarella; a couple of slices of crisply-fried pancetta – or bacon – and a few slices of ‘Ruth’ and ‘Sungold’. Round it off with a drizzle of oil. Delicious !

Finally – pumpkin. A sublime filling for big, fat homemade ravioli or cannelloni; even better roasted in the oven along with a chicken for Sunday lunch, or turned into a creamy soup, sprinkled with crumbled crispy bacon and toasted sunflower seeds.

They’re widely grown here and uniformly awful. Available in massive, fibrous, watery slices of tastelessness. I like my pumpkin with a smooth, dense flesh – almost fudgy, with a nutty, slightly chestnut, taste.

They’re easy to grow and some varieties have spectacular colours – and many have supreme storage qualities too, which’ll see them keep well into spring after an autumn harvest. But in five straight years of testing I’ve never quite found the perfect pumpkin.

Until this year.

Pumpkin is delicious with pasta and made into soup

I hadn’t grown the ‘Kabocha’ variety of pumpkin until this year.
Now that I’ve tasted it, I won’t be growing anything else for a while !

It’s a Japanese variety called Kabocha. Produces smallish fruit of around 2-4lbs. Ripens to a self-effacing dull, dark greeny-brown. Seems to keep well. And tastes…fabulous. Sweet, fudgy and delicious !

And is everything grown organically ? And the old issue of to spray/not to spray ?

A slightly uneasy compromise between principles and practicality.

Everything that’s planted in the veggie patch gets an immediate handful of granular fertiliser to help it on its way. No, not an organic brand. A cheap one. The corn, tomatoes and pumpkin are then left to their own devices with the aid only of water when it’s needed. In fact, I don’t give the tomatoes any water at all from early August onwards. I find this improves the flavour immeasurably.

Sprouts need help. Being a brassica, it’s a salad bar for Cabbage White caterpillars. And snails. So I spray a bit and use snail pellets too. Just the way it is, folks. I’d prefer not to, but…

Parsnips need a little sprinkling of pellets too until they get established. Beans have been pest-free some years; infested in others. I go with the flow…

And around this time of year, with the veggie patch cleaned and bare, covered in grass clippings to help keep it reasonably weed-free over winter (and to give it an early nitrogen boost when it’s all rotovated come spring), I start prowling through the seed catalogues and planning ahead for next spring.

Plant porn.

A slight waste of time in that after many years of trial/error, I’m pretty well locked-in to what I want to grow and the individual varieties I like best.

But you never know what you might find…

I’ll end this little exercise with a tip. What do do with all those seeds you’ll have left over if – like me – you vegetable garden on a modest scale. Roll them up tightly in their packets; stick them all in an old coffee tin; add a few sachets of that dessicant gel stuff you’ll find in cell-phone/computer/home entertainment packaging; and put it in the fridge. It can – and does – extend seed life for years.

You can do this with pretty much any seed you want.

So much for veggies. Finally, next time around – flowers, trees, and shrubs…


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