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Supplementing your Italian Feast with produce from your garden

Nota Bene: this article is a work in progress, and likely to be heavily edited in the near future. I'm just adding my thoughts here because currently this information is stored in my head and passed from person to person by way of conversation, which seems somewhat inefficient and requires many conversations. As a good starting point for the discussion, I grabbed out my copy of Castelvetro and have been referring to recipes that I've already translated, however, I'll follow up over time and complete references to other authors also.

A friend who is planning a 16th century Italian feast for next year, and who is currently busily planting out her garden, asked me recently what would be good to grow that could be used as part of a 16th century Italian feast.

I can think of a few good reasons why you'd want to grow your own stuff:

  1. Cost: especially when you're looking at bucket loads of herbs and slightly unusual ingredients, you can save a lot by growing the stuff yourself
  2. Lack of availability: when did you last try to buy sorrel at the supermarket? Never? How about borage flowers?
  3. Because it's cool to be able to say that you're using local produce. Prior to my cooking the feast for July Coronation 2010, Anna de Wilde and I went on an expedition to Cornwall Park*, which has a large number of olive trees, and spent an hour or two gathering olives which I then preserved and served at the feast.
  4. Interest. Especially with something unfamiliar, I like to have a go at growing it myself to see what it's like as a plant and how it likes to grow. This isn't always entirely successful, and I often need to move things around to find the right growing conditions. Or sometimes the plants just up and die.

My first answer on what to grow was to look to the herbs, which is where I usually start: anyone planning a 16th century Italian menu is going to go through boggins of herbs. They're not cheap to buy, and the supermarket or produce shop doesn't always have the ones you want in the right quantities. Of course, you may not have enough space to have the vast quantities necessary, but even if you just plant some and use it to supplement bought herbs, it's worth it.

The common ones:

  • Marjoram - plant at least eight plants, and then plant some more. As far as I can tell, it's impossible to have too much marjoram.
  • Mint - treat similarly to marjoram. Except remember to plant it somewhere where it is contained, as otherwise it will employ guerilla tactics to stage a hostile takeover of your entire garden.
  • Parsley - just handy, really handy. The roots are also used to make a soup in Scappi, and possibly elsewhere.
  • Basil - seriously, who doesn't plant bucket loads of this for day-to-day use anyway? A particularly good compliment to a salad of onions and cucumber, and also used (along with parsley) by Messisbugo in his Lettuce Soup.
  • Sage - depending on what you're cooking, you're going to want more or less of this. Probably more. Often used where broadbeans or pork are involved.
  • Fennel - the bulbing variety. The bulb is commonly served as a soup, but also candied, and always served cubed as a breath freshener at the end of a feast. If you haven't tried eating it this way before, it's worth doing as it's very refreshing. As a cautionary note, fennel self-sows freely. I weed literally hundreds of self-sown plants from my garden every year.

The less common ones:

  • Borage - this comes with both a blue and white flower. Apparently the flowers taste like cucumber, but with my lack of sense of smell I can't really taste them. What they are, however, is pretty. If you have the space to grow them, they're a very pretty addition to any summer salads. However, the same cautionary note as for fennel applies here. It's also served as a soup (I can't remember by whom, but when I find the recipe again I'll add a link), but it would seem that they were still only using the tips of the borage (I think Scully says that in his translation of Scappi), which makes sense given how hairy and prickly the rest of the plant is.
  • Sorrel - another one where, off the top of my head, I can't remember whose recipe uses it. What I am remembering is that I'm pretty sure this is incorporated in someone's recipe for meatballs. Sorrel is awesome anyway, and now a staple of many of my modern pasta sauces and stews: it has a slightly sour taste that is just deliciously rich. A friend also makes a very tasty sorrel soup with it. The plant grows into a massive clump that requires regular picking, and splitting every few years.
  • Salad Burnet - another one that apparently tastes like cucumber, but not one I can taste. Off the top of my head I think this was used by Scappi as part of the nut and cheese stuffing for cabbages, but I'll go verify that later. It really seems like a bit of a waste to use it in a stuffing, the flavour must get rather lost even for those that have a perfect sense of smell. However, you can also use it to jazz up salads, and it always causes comment because of the interesting leaf shape. I used to consider it a waste of space because I had a weedy plant, but once I found a happy spot for it, it massed itself.
  • Purslane - I'd actually forgotten about this, having killed several plants of it.  However, I was reminded of its existence by rereading the Introduction to Gillian Riley's translation of Castelvetro, where she mentions his suggestion of serving a salad of uncooked purslane with a little raw onion.1

On the subject of herbs, incidentally Castelvetro mentions within his spiel on broadbeans exactly what he means when he says "sweet herbs". He lists them as a mixture of parsley, spinach beets, mint, borage, marjoram, basil, and thyme, "with more of the first two since the others are so strongly flavoured".2  I'm not 100% certain, but I think the spinach beets are actually the leaves of beetroot, since that is the part of the plant that they were eating at that time, and spinach is mentioned separately. I grow thyme, but never use it because getting all the tiny leaves off the stalks is a total pain and accidentally getting the stalks in food just isn't pleasant because they're woody.

It's often useful to note who in your group is growing what herbs that you can raid, or to find out if people have space in their garden to grow a bit of something for you. Offering them a cutting, seeds, or plants can often help with this tactic also.

As a final note, Castelvetro also mentions a rather tasty-sounding, visually pleasing-sounding salad for Spring. It's my ultimate aim to be able one day to serve this salad with ingredients from my garden - which it would have to be, since most aren't sold anywhere. So far I grow ten of the 14 ingredients:

"Of all the salads we eat in the spring, the mixed salad is the best and most wonderful of all. Take young leaves of mint, those of garden cress, basil, lemon balm, the tips of salad burnet, tarragon, the flowers and tenderest leaves of borage, the flowers of swine cress, the young shoots of fennel, leaves of rocket, of sorrel, rosemary flowers, some sweet violets, and the tenderest leaves or the hearts of lettuce."3

Moving away from herbs, there's a few vegetables that I always grow that are excellent for use in feasts, and a few that I intend trying (or have tried unsuccessfully) that I would recommend:

  • Endives. A salad of endives is really very common. Endives are similar, but not the same, to frilly lettuces. There's a common variety called "ruffec green" that you can easily get seeds for on TradeMe. This is yet another readily self-sown plant; I now have plants reliably cropping up in the same places one after another. If I'm at all worried that I won't have enough, or that it will have gone to seed, I just sprinkle some more seeds.
  • Spinach. So easy, so practical, and so very useful in the modern kitchen also. I'm very fond of the one called "Perpetual", and F1 hybrid, because it does really, really well and just keeps on going, seemingly forever. How it compares to the varieties that they were growing at the time, I'm not completely sure. But it's very handy to have around.
  • Beetroot. Except save the leaves for your feasting and eat the bulbs mundanely. I haven't yet gotten around to actually planning when I plant my beetroot so that I have plenty of leaves for a feast, but I may aim to do this for November Crown.
  • Broadbeans. I'm constantly sowing them, and enjoy eating the ones that the snails don't get to first. Same as for beetroot, I need to actually plan the planting to use them for a feast. The fresh ones are really very tasty, and the Italians do so much with them.
  • Chicory. I keep sowing this, but haven't had any luck with it yet. But I'll keep trying, because I'd love to have a go at Rosselli's Chicory Soup, and he appears to be using the plant itself rather than the seeds. Off the top of my head I think Scappi has some recipes for this also, and Castelvetro also lists it ("...scraped, washed, and served with oil, vinegar and salt in a bowl rubbed with garlic"4).
  • Carrots. Screw the orange ones, try growing pink, purple, yellow, or white ones. I have yet to have any really good turn out from my attempts at growing them, but I still think it's worthwhile continuing to try.

Moving on to interesting and mundane stuff that take up more space, there's a few things you could try:

  • Cardoons or artichokes. I was unfamiliar with cardoons before I started cooking feasts. I have yet to meet a cardoon in the, um, flesh, but at least I know of their existence now. Artichokes are sodding huge plants, and I suspect that cardoons would be likewise.
  • Cabbages. They were growing both Savoy and hearted cabbages like our modern ones.
  • Hops vines. Castelvetro and Scappi both have recipes for soups made with the hops flower (at the least - others may also but I haven't checked). Hops are not in any way small.
  • Cauliflower. Served by Scappi as a soup with salt and pepper - lots of pepper - and a bit of orange juice. This really works, and is now one of my favourite ways to eat cauliflower, irrespective of era.
  • Gourds. I intermittently try to do a bit more digging about appropriate gourds to grow, and occasionally foray into attempts to actually grow them. To date all have failed dismally, and certainly not helped by the plentiful snail population at my house.
  • Wild strawberries. These are the original strawberry, completely unlike our modern ones. If you're lucky, a single strawberry may be as big as your thumbnail. These are not difficult to grow, the difficulty is actually in stopping them growing anywhere you don't want them. After six years of growing them, I got my biggest ever berry harvest in one hit: nearly a handful of berries. This exercise has given me a great appreciation of just how vast an area you would need to be able to grow these on a useable scale.
  • Capers. If you try to grow these, I wish you well. Having made several attempts at growing them myself, I've since learnt that capers are very, very difficult to get growing. Apparently once they're established they're fantastic, practically forever. But getting them to that state requires quite a lot of effort. Apparently they like rocky ground. I read online that you should sprout them in sand, and that they need to have experienced a good frosty winter (or a few weeks in the freezer) before they'll even think about sprouting. After more than a month trying to get them to sprout, I gave up on the last lot (even though they had had the necessary freezing, and were planted in sand).

Really really big things (i.e., trees) that are awesome to grow for your feasts:

  • Quinces. Thanks to the wonderfully new+ and trendy concept of the Farmer's Markets, quinces are now more easily able to be bought. But why take chances with those when you can grow your very own tree in your very own garden? Quinces are absolutely essential for any feast, because in addition to being tasty in a variety of dishes, they make the all-important and extremely luxurious quince paste.
  • Pomegranates. Yes, you can buy them in the supermarket here. But they're all imported from the USA, and totally out of season for us. You'll have noticed them in the shops around October/November because they're an autumn fruit. Apparently the trees don't fare well in a pot, because the first year in the ground last year my tree finally produced fruit. Not many, and not large, but actual, edible fruit. A friend in Hamilton also has a pomegranate that grows larger fruit, so I'm hopeful that mine will move on to greater things. In NZ, they fruit in late April/early May.
  • Seville oranges. For the bitter juice. Funnily enough, our sensible modern palates that like sweeter-tasting fruit mean that these are not commonly found, and bitter orange juice and candied peel is consequently harder to come by. My tree remains stunted and needs a great deal of fertiliser, better placement, and a few more years of growing. I remain hopeful that it will eventually produce fruit.
  • A bergamot orange. Someone or other of the Italian cooks mentions these. But really, why wouldn't you want to grow one anyway, so you can make your own Earl Grey tea blend?
  • A lemon tree. Everyone should have a lemon tree anyway, but you can use the lemons for (amongst other things) cutting into slices to dress up your meat for your 16th century Italian feast.
  • Figs. We have easy access to dried figs. Not so much to fresh ones. But I suspect that recipes such as Rosselli's filled fig fritters should actually be made up using fresh figs, however I have successfully tested it with dried figs - it would just be nice to try the recipe with fresh.
  • Medlars. There's a few recipes involving medlars, but they're not something I've ever seen sold.

* If you want to do something like this, remember to check with whoever owns or is responsible for the area to make sure they're happy with you gathering stuff.

+ This is called "sarcasm".

1 Riley, Gillian (trans); Castelvetro, Giacomo, The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy (Penguin Group, London, 1989) p28

2 Ibid p59

3 Ibid pp64-65

4 Ibid p63