The next time you travel to Italy, I hope you’ll notice the food.
Not just the steaming plates of hand-rolled pasta or the savory, garlic-y greens or the spicy, fruity olive oil drizzled on everything. Authentic Italian dishes are delectable, of course, but be sure take a good look in backyards – virtually anyone’s. After all, that’s often where your plate of mouth-watering, local specialties came from.
Of course you’ll quickly notice the kind of vegetable garden plots that you’d expect to see with tall, staked tomato plants, thick, leafy zucchini and colorful peppers. Che bello. Then let your eyes roam beyond this obvious orto, and you’ll probably spot more.
The animals will be obvious. Perhaps you’ll see chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, sheep, goats and/or hogs. Yep. Right there in the backyard. Free range at its best.
It’s likely that you’ll also see a fruit tree (or several): apple, cherry, pear or the classic, gnarly-trunk fig. There might be a nut tree, as well, particularly walnut, chestnut or the short, bushy hazelnut. Most certainly you’ll notice a silvery green olive tree … or several … or an entire grove filled with ancient, twisting trunks and branches.
The greens might be harder to spot, but wild chicory (cicoria) might be sprouting up in grassy areas, and those tall, spike-y leafed plants along the edge of steep terraces or bordering driveways are artichokes.
Artichokes (carciofi) are one of my favorites. Before growing my own, I had no idea how hardy, versatile and prolific this amazing plant is. From early spring through summer, purple-green artichokes shoot up from the center of the plant on long stalks, ready to be cleaned and eaten in any number of delicious dishes. Then the hot summer months, and a lack of rain, reduce the plant to withering, yellow leaves that are cut back to the ground.
But the carciofi aren’t finished yet.
After the autumn rains begin, the plants spring up from the hard-packed ground seemingly overnight, and even more sprout from the same root. Each day the leaves grow larger and fuller, and finally it’s time to thin the plants or they’ll crowd each other out next spring.
It’s not likely that the plants will produce artichokes before the first frost knocks them down again, but there’s a surprise, autumn dish hiding right there in the heavy stalks. (If you’d like the recipe for artichoke stalks, click here.)
So as you travel throughout the countryside of Italy, the lesson from the Italian backyard, referred to as the garden (giardino), is that we are closely connected to our food. And organic growing methods, the freshest fruits, vegetables and meats, and seasonal dishes (some hidden in stems, stalks and grasses) are a beautiful, healthy and satisfying way to celebrate our connection with food. Right there in the backyard.
Pamela Haack is an author, specialized travel consultant and founder of Off the Beaten Strada where she creates and hosts custom retreats in central Italy, for travelers who wish to be immersed in the history, culture and traditions of the region.
Get your FREE copy of Pamela’s Italy Trip Planning Tips, plus her FREE Off the Beaten Strada ezine filled with recipes, regional stories, practical travel tips and news from off the beaten strada in the heart of Italy. Click here.