Terrace growing

I’ve been on an amazing, lovely but at times stressful 7-month stay in Italy.  Being an avid gardener and lover of all things botanical, I was thrilled to finally live somewhere with warm weather again so I could grow happy tomatoes outside.  Yes, I’m really that simple of a person!  If I can grow my own food, I’m content.  Seeing three Donatello crucifixes and Giotto chapels seemingly around every corner is nice too, but heat and dirty fingernails really make me melt into a puddle of bliss.

Verona terraces.  No not THAT one.I’m in the city centre, where land is at a premium, so apartment living.  The terrace culture in Italy is as old as it’s architecture.  Juliet’s famous monologue took place (allegedly) on a Verona terrace that you can go to today, but personally I’d prefer to walk through the narrow streets of Venice or any old city and gasp at the splashes of botanical colour dripping from most balconies.  One has only to walk around a residential area and you will find gorgeous apartment terraces dotted with citrus trees and their railings spilling over with ivy and succulents.  The odd thing is that yet the ground does not seem to be a place for cultivation at all until about May.  Spare ground seems to only serve as a place to let your dog relieve itself.  It’s such a very very odd change from Edinburgh, where any spare ground will surely have crocuses, snowdrops and or daffodils popping up in the spring, and a nicely mowed grass later in the spring and summer.  And UK dog owners tend to be much better at picking up after their pets, but that’s a whole other rant for someone else’s blog.

Early spring terraces

Things perk up in Summer, but most gardens have perennial shrubs dotted around gardens instead of borders, and annuals are non-existent.  The upside is that many of the perennials are things like jasmine and wisteria, and when they bloom, it’s like someone is spraying sweet perfume at you as you walk.

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Photogenic and trendy vegetables

I vividly remember the first time I saw a romanesco.  I was working at my first job in the UK, and our office manager had an organic vegetable box delivered to the office on a biweekly basis.  Usually it was filled with the bog standard UK produce, like potatoes, onions, mushrooms and all manner of root vegetables.  But one day, she pulls out this romanesco and says “wow, take a look at this guys!”  I instantly thought of mathematical fractals like those on the cover of the Soup Dragon’s Lovegod album.  I bought that cassette in middle school and it was my favourite for over a year.  Man, that ages me, huh?

Anyhow, so I have since seen this spiralling brassica in grocery stores, but for some crazy reason I have never bought one until now.  Goodness, what a mistake!  Romanesco is gorgeous, both visually and on the palate. If only my picky eight year old would eat vegetables, romanesco could be a standard dinner dish.  I suppose I could blend it up into a soup and he’d never be the wiser!  But looking at it while eating is not an insignificant part of the enjoyment.  Oh well, perhaps in 10 years he’ll eat veggies!  In the meantime, I’ll have to buy it again and take some arty close up photos (but before it’s been sitting in the fridge for a week, getting browned corners!) to put up in the kitchen.  It’s just so amazingly lovely to look at!

AgrettiRomanesco1

Unbeknownst to me, I purchased a rather “sought after” vegetable today.  I had gone into my local produce store (gotta love Italian produce!) to buy some red grapefruit and tomatoes.  But then I saw this grassy looking plant in the refrigerated section.  The grocer saw my perplexed stare and told me that it was agretti, and that I should try it.  He told me to cut off the reddish stems and roots so that only the green bits are left, to wash it really well, and to throw it into boiling water with a bit of oil, salt and lemon juice for 4-5 minutes.  Easy peasy right?  So I added that to my bill.  It was only €1.81 for a fistful bunch.  I didn’t think anything of it until I started making dinner and thought I should google it to see what folks make with it and what exactly it is.  It appears to have made quite a big splash in the UK recently, due to an appearance on MasterChef and in Jamie Oliver’s restaurant.  The media has been taunting readers about not trying it sooner.  British chefs are apparently fighting over it, and agretti seeds have flown off the shelves and are only on sale in the UK for next year!

Like I said, I didn’t know anything about agretti when I bought it. I had to have the grocer write down the name for me because I was sure to forget it by the time I walked home. But now I feel like a hipster who ought to have an iphone, ear much smarter glasses, and perhaps drive a vespa or prius.  OK, so I really don’t feel like that and am perfectly happy with my old non-fruit phone and way out-of-fashion glasses!  But I do laugh at the idea that my rather inexpensive dinner ingredient is some posh foodie menu item.  In a few years agretti be passée, and I’ll like it all the same.

OK, enough waxing on about the pretension of the food… How did the bloody stuff taste??  It didn’t have a strong taste.  “Un gusto delicato” the grocer had told me, and he was right, like he always is about fruit and veg.  I felt it had a flavour reminiscent of a salty celery, but without any of the horrible strings that celery has.  Personally, I’m not a big fan of celery, and I really really dislike the texture of their strings.  So agretti is a great celery alternative for me.  But I suppose the texture isn’t quite as robust to use as a celery substitute, even if you could get your hands on it easily. It was nice though, and I’ll for sure buy and make it again if for nothing else than the ease and speed to prepare and cook it.  My husband was rather more impressed than me (even before I told him that it was in hot demand in the UK) and lapped up nearly the entire pot in no time. Not bad for €1.81!  How much does Jamie Oliver charge for this stuff in his restaurant????

Seed success in Italy

Finally, I found a place with decent and fresh seeds.

Hallelujah!

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Every Saturday, there is an amazing outdoor market that is set up in the Prato della Valle in Padova.  It’s not the famous fruit market in the city centre, even though it is bigger and does have quite the variety of fruit and vegetable venders.  There are also more shoe and clothes venders than I could ever imagine too.  But at the far end there are the plant venders.  Ohhh, if I were going to stay here in the long-term I could very easily rack up a huge debt buying the lovely citrus trees they are selling at the moment.  From tiny round kumquats to massive and funky hands of Buddha.  There are also the standard lemon and orange trees too.  It makes me want to plant my own little citrus grove, like the one in Riverside California that is home to one of the largest collection of citrus species.  And kids are allowed to just run through the orchard there, enjoying the trees bejeweled with fruits.  As a parent, the occasional windfallen orange may find it’s way into my purse and then mouth… Although strictly forbidden!

I really need to stop dreaming about my California days!  Gees, I’m in gorgeous Italy for goodness sakes!

So, I did fine two venders that sold seeds at Prato della Valle, and one of them had my trendy purple vegetables.  Yeah! So I shall try out growing my own purple tomatoes and carrots.  Antioxidants here I come!

I also seem to be the only person in the world who doesn’t grow my own lettuce, so I finally bought a package of cut and come again greens.  Now, I can’t wait for summer.

Vecchi semi – Old seeds

So, I realise it’s a bit odd that my last posting is about my long-awaited success in the allotment lottery in Edinburgh, and now here I am looking for seeds in Italy.  But a 6-month sabbatical is being spend here in Italy.  I’ll still tend to my allotment though, and hopefully also to a nice terrace garden.  That is if I can find some good Italian seeds…

Semi1

After scouring the Italian internets, looking for seme and only finding sites selling marijuana seeds, I vented my frustration on Twitter. Thankfully some very nice advice lead me to searching for semenze instead, which was much more fruitful.  The only problem is that after gleefully shopping on a few sites for a couple of hours each, I would get to the payment page, only to find that either the billing address is stuck on Italy, or they won’t let you have a different country for delivery and billing.  Doesn’t anyone buy seeds as gifts for friends?  I guess not.  Eventually I found a few websites that were more promising, but it’s always nicer to actually touch the packet and buy it from a person, or so I thought.

Now ordinarily I could walk into my closest supermarket or home improvement shop and find at least one round spinning display of at least 50 vegetable and flower seed packets.  But not in Italy.  Sometimes I can buy a spray painted succulent (yeah, who knew anybody could or would buy such a thing?) or a pot of forced bulbs in the super market, but seeds for something to grow outside are nowhere to be found.  Again, after a Twitter suggestion to try looking outside of the city centre (centro cittá, but pronounced “chen-tro chee-ta” which for some reason I love saying) and spent a good chunk of time of last night searching online for plant stores, agrarian stores, and garden stores. Armed with an address for a promising sounding Centro Verde (Green Centre) today I went out in search of some seeds.

I came to where the Centro Verde ought to be and found this.

It looked sort of “planty” to I walked down the gravel driveway and into the back poly tunnels which had a few people doing something that approximated working.  They all stopped and stared at me, and since there was absolutely no signage to tell me if this was a place of business or private property, I prepared myself for a phrase to say just in case I was walking into someone’s home, or a private non-commercial nursery.

Thankfully they had a cash register and it appears they do sell plants.  So, I say that I’m looking for semi de verdura (vegetable seeds) and am escorted to small store with lots of dog-eared boxes and dusty bottles filling roughly 10% of the tired looking shelves.  In one corner there is a peg-board with lots of empty seed packet hanger bars.  But only about a dozen of the bars have any seed packets hanging from them.  I say I’m looking for carote (actually I had my heart set on heirloom white or purple carrots, but in this place I would settle for standard orange, heirloom or F1).  No semi de carote.  OK, I also wanted to find big leaved Basil, but again I would have settled for basil seeds of any variety.  I stupidly asked for basilica (very large church) but the lady kindly corrected my broken Italian and said basilico (basil) sí. Score, it’s even the basilica-sized basil I wanted!  There is a single packet of basilico, folia di lattuga (lettuce leaved Basil) so I take that packet.  I had hoped for perhaps some interesting yellow or black tomatoes.  But sadly there are no tomato seeds to be seen. I look for bell pepper, again really hoping for the new purple varieties, but not even a standard green one is there.  They only had cauliflower, spinach and kale, but I’m looking for sexy Italian vegetables.

Determined to try at least one other plant, I grab a packet of nasturizio (nasturtiums), turn over the packet in search of a price to make sure that they aren’t horrendously expensive, only to see the expiry dates!  2011 on my basilico and 2012 on the nasturzio packet! The layer of dust I can feel on the packets should have warned me.  Hmmm, the lady tells me that they are €1 each, so that’s €2 in my hands already.  I’m still a bit shocked at the dates, but I walked half an hour to get here and this is the only place I have seen any seeds in my month and half in Italy, so I decide to just buy them and see how I get on. My fingers and toes are crossed that a few of these old seeds will germinate.

The new allotment

It sort of feels like I have just won the lottery.  Seven years ago, then I first moved to Edinburgh, I found out about the concept of allotments (hard for most Americans living in detached houses to understand) and high demand for allotments in Edinburgh in particular.  So within a few weeks of moving, I figured out how to get myself on the waiting list.  I did that months before I ever learned how to unscrew a bayonet light-bulb in fact! But don’t get me started on the stupidity of bayonets…

I wish I had a lovely photo to post of the new plot.  But as luck would have it, I am temporarily living in Italy and can’t actually get my hands dirty with “my” new dirt for another month.  However, as it’s still very much winter in Edinburgh, there probably isn’t a whole heck of a lot I could be doing there anyhow at the moment.  Or at least I’ll tell myself that to appease my anxious fingers.

In the mean time, I have lots and lots of thinking to do, and the luxury of time to read-up and draft a plan for this space.  Thankfully I happen to be married to the best soil scientist in Edinburgh, if not the world, with a few graduate students that might be talked into taking some soil samples for me whilst I’m away!  That’s my first plan of attack to help me figure out soil amendments needed and preferential plants that will be most happy on the plot.

Whilst I’ve not had outstanding success in a multitude of edible plants in my own wee Scottish garden at home, I suspect the success rate will be fairly low the first few years.  Any and all hints, tips and recommendations that can be shared are MORE than welcome, so pretty please, write a comment below!