Jun 252013

Tomatoes pic taken at a market in Italy by Maria Ciavarella
When asked to reflect on a recent holiday in Italy, what immediately comes to mind is the everyday relationship that Italians have with their food. The word “passion” springs to mind.

Seasonality is also a key issue and there you can see it in its abundance. Visiting the local markets which appear twice weekly in areas around Rome, I was struck by the awesome variety of produce for sale. We were there in late spring, so the tomato range was coming into season. There were tomatoes of shapes and sizes that I had never seen before and – importantly – in different stages of maturation.

Now you might only know this if you grow tomatoes yourself, that they don’t all ripen evenly, unlike the ones we are confronted with in supermarkets and greengrocers in Melbourne. The ones we saw for sale in Rome were in varying shades of green and red, as well as the differently coloured varieties. You could choose whether you wanted them slightly under-ripe for a salad or squishy, perfect for cooking. You could definitely not put these under a brick and expect them to keep their shape, as can be demonstrated with the toms available for sale here.

The varieties are not marketed as ‘heirloom’ because they just are and the Italians will expect them to be, and they will all be sold by name. These tomatoes are readily available as seed to grow in our plots here, but I have never seen them for sale as food for possibly one or two reasons. Firstly they don’t transport well over thousands of kilometers, so even the Italians don’t expect to see them year round and relish them when they are available. Then, here in Australia we just don’t have the growers that can go beyond the Farmers Markets to sell this sort of produce to the large supermarket chains.

Some pics from my Italian Adventure!

I was privileged too to stay with relatives who had some land and were keen growers, and so I got many tips from them, as well as taking walks throughout the countryside and foisting my inquisitiveness on any people I saw in their gardens. My broken Italian got a workout but I did learn many Italian gardening terms which I didn’t know before. There was one word however that I didn’t learn because they didn’t use it: the word for “mulch”. In all the places I visited, mulch wasn’t something that was used as a garden cover. Instead, north of Rome I noted that black plastic (it was called ‘nylon’ to them) was used as a cover for the soil, under which drip irrigation delivered water to the plants.

Now to us organic gardeners, black plastic is anathema to our concept of gardening. We are reminded of the black plastic under pebbles used as mulch in the 70’s that was excruciatingly difficult to remove years later! Instead, the Italian gardener uses it for a season only. It is bought by the metre in lengths to suit and comes already pre-holed at specific distances apart, or whole so you can slit gaps to suit. When asked why they used it, their reasons were two: to stop weed competition and to help warm up the soil, particularly important in the north to extend the growing seasons. Interestingly, this plastic was used by commercial growers in their serre, or their long igloo-style cloches, so that they could get summer vegies almost ready for picking while it was still late spring.

The concept of food miles was important to the growers we visited. Their term for it translates as “zero kilometers”. Having smaller landholdings meant that your market was local, so often there would be a small shop at the farm gate which the locals would know about and consequently shop at; or at the local market, so freshness was a given, otherwise refrigeration and long-storage was needed.

Unfortunately, one day Italy might go the path of other Western nations, where food is uniform and uninteresting as younger people leave the countryside in search of work in the cities. I can only hope, for diversity, taste and interest, that Italians never lose their passion for flavour in their lives.