Listening to: I Vespri Siciliani, Giuseppe Verdi – Ballet of the Four Seasons: Spring
When Ottavio, my grandfather, was a kid, he was put to work as soon as he was tall enough to hold a plow.
Still today, while I have testimony of my grandma’s scribbled recipes laden with macroscopic grammar mistakes, I have never seen him write a single word. I never thought of asking him wether he knew how to write. I learned from him to speak the local dialect with which we still communicate today (some words unintelligible by the average Italian speaker, like ‘rass‘ to say ‘uccelli‘ (birds), or ‘da pett‘ to say ‘vicino‘ (near), so I can safely say I can speak 4 languages rather than 3), and to live according to moon phases, which he calculated without thinking.
What fascinates me the most about him is that he never considered the vegetable garden as the work that was forced upon him when he was a kid. He kept doing it all his life, even when he didn’t have to, and even when he became a master builder and got another, better-paying, still back-breaking job. He tended the garden all his life, with the dedication you would direct to those things you cling to for solace when life seems to be drowning you.
His garden always produced wonders: plump, seedless zucchini; the sweetest, juiciest tomatoes; the most fragrant, inebriating bushes of basil; as well as glowing eggplants without the slightest hint of bitterness, usually turned into melanzane sott’olio by my mother’s wise hands. Sure, he had his troubles with vegetables he was not accustomed to growing – like that time he picked all the Delicata squashes I had planted when they were still unripe because he thought they were round zucchini and were not supposed to grow too big, hence ruining half my harvest. But for the most part he was a magic-maker.
This year, at the dawn of his 89th birthday, he started lamenting a throbbing pain at his shoulder. Though it took an incredibly long time, all his work finally presented its bill.
After 80 years – 80 years! of honored service, he hung up his plow and rake and gave up on the garden.
I am finally home for a couple days after a long stretch of working travel and before a second stretch begins, and I used this time to catch up on photography, and to collect some thoughts.
This year I set off determined to take over my grandpa’s work and start a little garden of my own. I bought several varieties of ancient heirloom fruit and veg and a plethora of flowers – ornamental and wild, and decided to grow them into something.
I have been thinking of the reasons why I decided to do it aside photography purposes, and ended my thinking with quite a loot of soulful musings.
What I think I like the most about gardening is that it is sort of becoming my own way of meditating. Assuming that meditating means emptying the mind from all sorts of prejudice and root your feet in the here and now, then meditation also means taking care of the person you are in every moment you live. It is like a date during a relationship that never gets old, a relationship which can renew itself second after second.
I, contrary to my relatives whose work was forced upon, can choose to plow the soil as a way to meditate, and I associate the sprouting of a seed with the sproutlings of a soul who is perfectly at peace.
Here, in this sort of state of mind devoid of vanity, I am learning to distinguish who I ‘wish I was’ from who I inevitably am.
And, for the person that I am and that is doing the gardening, some feelings have started to lose their meaning. The feeling of competition, for example. Or the feeling of judgement, both towards one’s self and towards others. The feeling of expecting things. Here, in the garden there is nothing to complain about and there is nothing to wish for. All just is, and that is it. All that I can wish is for my deeds to grow nice and healthy. There’s no wishful thinking, and it beautifully feels like having both wings and roots, if you know what I mean.
So I am going to pick up his shovel – laying there, where his working shirt still hangs on a nail hammered to a plank in the greenhouse, and take over.
In the meantime, somewhere else in Italy, in the countryside right outside of Parma, there is a farm I had the luck to visit recently, called Podere Stuard: they have a vast collection of heirloom vegetable seeds and fruit trees, ancient varieties that have been forgotten by large producers and that they are bringing back to life in their shop and to the markets they attend weekly. I saw the most beautiful pink, gem-like radicchios, flaming red chard, amethyst-purple Venetian garlic, and the sweetest, pink-and-red apples the size of the fist of a kid – all ancient varieties naturally found growing spontaneously in fields throughout the region.
I was so inspired by their effort to preserve biodiversity, that I couldn’t help but buy some ancient and heirloom varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruit myself. I bought some varieties dating back to the middle ages: purple carrots, yellow cherry tomatoes, white ‘peach’ tomatoes, lovage, marigolds, bear garlic, wild vineyard garlic. Then I bought three heirloom fruit trees: ‘Cocomerina’ pear, small pears the flesh a deep pink; ‘Abbondanza’ apples, tiny round red fruits with pinkish hues in the flesh; and ‘Sanguinella’ peach, a variety of a deep red and white flesh. all indigenous varieties of Emilia Romagna, which are currently sitting in their vases waiting till after the new moon to be transplanted.
I also bought a plethora of flowers: Chamomile, a variety of poppies, purple tansy, blue bells, buttercups, and windflowers.
If everything goes well, photos will be gorgeous this summer.
Parma, where Podere Stuard is, in the Emilia side of the Emilia-Romagna region, is homeland to some of the most delicious Italian food: not only to Parma ham for example, but to the ‘Parmigiano’ side of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the undisputed king of Italian cheeses. The vast Padan plains are home to freely grazing cows of all races – mostly ancient ones, like Vacca Rossa, red cow, of which the milk makes the most incredible looking brownish cheese, or the white, majestic Romagnola cow.
But here in cow-less Romagna (in spite of the fact that there’s a race bearing this part of the region’s name), the green, orchard-lined hills are more often dotted with the white and brownish mantles of sheep and goats, and famers set out to produce small-batch cheeses and yogurts made from their milk when the season is right. I love goat’s milk cheeses (which are also said to be much better for women suffering from hormonal problems than cow’s milk cheese) and I think they complement bitter-ish greens like radicchios and chicory absolutely wonderfully. I got this incredible goat blue cheese, goat milk’s spread, as well as a good chunk of hearty Parmigiano Reggiano.
These cheeses are, to me, literally gold: the farmers only make them when the animals naturally go ‘in season’ and produce milk without being forced to, so they are not available year-round. The unusually warm weather anticipated things a bit and all animals seem in a particularly good mood these days.
So, when I came home to find a bag of vegetables I had lying around prior to leaving, I decided to use them up along my new purchases of radicchios and local cheeses. So here are two comforting, hearty recipes using leftover beets, the cheeses I bought and one of my favorite winter vegetables.
These super easy recipes involve a technique I learned from Marco, who has a Phd in Gastronomy and is the Chef at Podere Stuard, who in turn learned it from a chef he worked under. I hope you do not fear the microwave, because I never had such perfect results with radicchio! if you don’t have one, steaming will work just fine.
I used a mix of beautiful pink radicchios I found in Parma, some curly Trevigiano, and the more classic oblong red radicchio. If you can find them, pick several different kinds! The curly Trevigiano and the pink ones are the sweetest, less bitter, most delicious and unfortunately most expensive, but absolutely worth it. Both recipes, I think, are best enjoyed immediately, as the vegetables will lose their crispy edge if left to cool and reheated, but they are so little work it is worth making them for immediate consumption.
They are 100% real Italian fare, one all northerners have on their tables in the winter, and one that calls to my mind the pearly mists of Veneto and of the plain…
GRILLED RADICCHIO WITH FONDUE AND WALNUTS
8 radicchio heads of different varieties, preferably Trevigiano & Rosa
Olive oil, salt and pepper
100 g mixed cheeses like aged Montasio (grated), Parmigiano (grated) and gorgonzola or taleggio (cut into pieces)
50 ml milk
A generous handful toasted pine nuts or walnuts.
Wash the radicchios, cut them in half (or in quarters if they’re bulky) well and leave them damp. Line on a plate without overlapping them too much, cover them with cling film and microwave at high for 3 minutes, or until soft.
In the meantime, heat up a grill or cast iron pan until very hot. Dress the radicchios with a generous glug of olive oil, salt and pepper, and toss to coat.
Add the cheeses to a pot with the milk and melt them over a low flame, stirring often. keep them nice and warm.
Cook the radicchios on the hot grill/pan, turning them each time one side turns nice and crispy brown. Serve on a plate with the fondue and the toasted nuts.
~ Finish them under the broiler to turn the cheese gold and bubbly.
~ Chop and toss with cooked pasta, then broil with extra cheese to form a nice crust and make a pasta bake of sorts.
ROAST BEET & RADICCHIO SALAD WITH CHEESE & CITRUS OIL
2 medium radicchio heads, or 4 small ones, quartered lengthwise
4 small beets, cut into 1 inch slices
Olive oil, salt and pepper
A handful sage leaves (at least 8)
Your favorite cheese: I suggest blue goat’s, smoked ricotta or good ol’ Parmigiano
Toasted pine nuts or walnuts
Citrus extra virgin olive oil, like orange or lemon
A good drizzle of runny honey
Preheat the oven to 200 C˚ / 390 F˚.
Steam the beets for 5 minutes, then add the radicchio and steam for 2 more minutes. You can use the same microwave technique from the recipe above, but make sure to add a little water to the plate and microwave the beets alone for 5 minutes, then add the radicchio and microwave for 2 more minutes – always covering with clingfilm.
When done, toss well with olive oil, salt and pepper and the torn sage leaves and coat well.
Spread on a tray lined with baking paper and bake until slightly crispy and cooked through, about 15 minutes. Do not cook for too long or the vegetables might turn dry.
Serve immediately with crumbled cheese, nuts, and a drizzle of citrus olive oil
MAKING CITRUS OLIVE OIL
If you cannot buy it, making your own is super easy.
Heat a cup of oil over a bain-marie with the peel of half an organic lemon or half an organic orange, making sure none of the white part is attached to the peel. Heat, very gently, for about 20 minutes. Ideally, the oil should never heat above 40 – 50 C˚, but as long as it is being heated over a bain marie it will never fry up.
Done! Wait until completely cool before removing the peel and storing in a jar.
FOR CHEESELESS VERSIONS:
If you do not want to use the cheese, you can make these recipes delicious with ‘vegan parm’, of which you can find many recipes online, or a mix of toasted and crushed seeds, and extra sage and rosemary. It will still be delicious!