Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Italian kitchen garden

A plot for vegetables is an essential part of any Italian garden, or indeed any Italian outdoor space. Next time you’re in a major Italian city, look up and you’ll see plants tumbling over the rooftops, bright yellow dots of citrus trees. Window boxes burst not just with flowers but also edibles. Out in more rural areas, everyone keeps a patch in their garden for their kitchen garden or ‘orto’.

Think of Italian vegetables and what springs to mind? Tomatoes, obviously, although as we discussed at the Secret Garden last month, tomatoes are a relatively recent introduction into Italy. Peppers, ditto. Aubergines, which originated in Asia, have been cultivated in Italy since the early Middle Ages. All of these we grow in the Secret Garden.

Tomatoes are easy to raise in the UK, not so easy to get prolific fruit from. We grow them indoors and outside, and the latter needs a warm sunny summer to get the fruit ripening properly. Italians typically grow plum tomatoes: the varieties Roma, and San Marzano, are justly famous, and beefsteak-style tomatoes such as Costoluto and Cuor di Bue.

Both hot and sweet peppers have become staples of the Italian kitchen garden. Chilli peppers are probably slightly easier to grow outside in the UK than sweet peppers which tend to do better in a greenhouse. Classic Italian varieties include the Corno Rosso ('red horns', often known as bulls' horns) which are long, indeed horn-shaped, and sweet, plus the cayenne-style 'Piccante' peppers, and Ciliegia Piccante ('spicy cherry' peppers).

Aubergines will grow well in a conservatory or greenhouse and this year made a decent fist of it outside on our sunny sheltered patio. As with tomatoes and peppers, above, the seeds should be sown indoors early in the year, February is a good time, and transplanted into large pots in mid to late spring. The fruits should be ready for picking about now, September into October.

If you look further afield, you’ll find many other vegetables and also herbs which we think of as typically Italian and which will grow well here in the UK.

Beans – Borlotti beans are an essential for us and they grow very well outside here. Fresh borlotti beans are delicious, podded, simmered and dressed with olive oil – and impossible to buy in the shops in the UK. Having said that, we do tend to dry most of our beans. Leaving them on the plant until the pods are dark charcoal-purple in colour and hard and dry to the touch, the pods are picked before the first frost and shelled. If the beans clatter on to the worktop they’re dry and ready to store. If they land with anything like a dull thud, they need more drying out, before being poured into airtight jars and stored somewhere cool and dark for the winter. 

Courgettes and squash for both winter and summer are grown all over Italy. Two of my favourite squash for eating, the dense-fleshed Berrettina Piacentina and Marina di Chioggia, are cultivated up in the north of Italy. I always think they have a flavour somewhere between sweet potato and chestnut. We start these off in pots in April, then when they're ready to plant out, we add lots of well-rotted kitchen compost to the soil - squash and courgettes are hungry and thirsty plants. Squash will scramble along the ground and take over your beds and send long shoots out across the lawn given half a chance, so we train them upwards on to trellises.

With broccoli, another classically Italian vegetable, the clue is in the name. Broccolo refers to the flowerbud which is essentially what the edible part of the plant is. We may think of broccoli, cauliflower and similar as very British brassicas, but there are many varieties cultivated in Italy. Broccoli has been grown in Italy since the 6th century BC at least and became very popular in Roman times, but wasn’t brought to Britain until the 1700s.

The large-headed green variety we think of as plain broccoli is known in Italy as Broccoli Calabrese, or Calabrian broccoli. You’ll also find red and purple headed Sicilian broccoli sold as cauliflower, and the beautiful pale green Cauliflower or Broccoli Romanesco, below, with its spiral whorls and crisp clean taste.

Italian Kale, or Tuscan kale, black kale, or cavolo nero, is the currently fashionable variety with slim straight leaves in an inky green-black, or even a bluish tinge to the tops. It grows beautifully in the south of England and is a long-lived crop. Black kale sown in the spring will be ready to start picking from August and will keep growing throughout winter. Even under snow or when the ground is frozen, you’ll still be able to cut some of this kale which makes it a good winter stand-by.

Salad greens are widely grown in Italy, especially rocket (rucola) which is ubiquitous as a salad leaf in restaurants and easy to raise in a garden or pot. The plant grows quickly and self-seeds freely, so, once sown, you will probably always have some rocket, you just might not know exactly where. Also popular is radicchio, as in the conical chicory called cicoria di Treviso and the round red radicchio Palla Rossa (see top picture), and in Rome, a particular delicacy called puntarelle, a dandelion-like plant. Puntarelle is harvested whole in autumn, then the leaves are sliced into thin strips and submerged in ice-cold water until they curl up. After drying off, the leaves are served as a crisp, slightly bitter-leaved salad.

Italian Cicoria Rossa di Treviso, harvested in November. It needs a period of cold in the ground to develop the deep red colour.
Puntarelle: the fresh-tasting, crunchy inner leaves will be welcome as a salad in wintertime. 

And then there's root veg, perhaps surprisingly, including beetroot, carrots, and turnips and of course, for the Italians, turnip leaves. Some turnip varieties, such as cimi di rapa, are grown expressly for their tops and for a famous dish with oriechette pasta.

A part of the orto will be given over to herbs. Flat-leaved parsley is an easy and inexpensive way to add an Italian note to many dishes. Oregano is grown to lend that distinctive Mediterranean note to pizzas, and rosemary always seems like a quintessentially Italian flavouring to me. Don’t be afraid of the cold with rosemary, it’s perfectly hardy and I always find you get the best flowers in the spring after a cold winter. It’s sitting in the wet that rosemary dislikes. Make sure your soil or pots are well-drained.

As befits a fairly new country – Italy only became a single nation in 1870 and some parts of what is now Italy didn’t formally join up until after WW1 – each region has its own food specialities. We are familiar with the differences in regional cuisine in Italy, it’s only logical that this extends to growing the food as well.

Italian vegetables often trumpet their provenance. Roma tomatoes come, unsurprisingly, from Rome. Genovese basil is the classic succulent-leafed version we buy fresh in supermarket pots, while basil from Naples has much larger, frillier leaves. Florence fennel is named for its city of origin. Neapolitan flat-leaved parsley comes from Naples, courgettes Romanesco from Rome again, and the long, slim, pale green squash called Serpente di Sicilia (Sicilian Snakes) are indeed from Sicily.

And this is useful when it comes to choosing varieties to grow, because while our climate is nothing like the climate in the south of Italy or Sicily, it isn’t so dissimilar to the growing conditions in the north of the country in the hills and mountains, where the temperatures are cooler and the rainfall more akin to our own.

Even this summer, which has been a cause for celebration in the UK, has seen us feeling lucky that outdoor tomatoes have ripened before the blight arrived. In Italy, any suggestion that tomatoes might not ripen would be greeted with astonishment.

If you want to grow specifically Italian vegetables, one very good place to start is Franchi Seeds, aka Seeds Of Italy. A family-run company for over 230 years, Franchi is based in Bergamo, with a UK operation in Harrow, and sources its seeds from local growers across the regions of Italy, often with the precise provenance named on the packet. You'll find their seeds online at Look out for their open days in the UK about twice a year when you can explore the warehouse and get plenty of good growing advice.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Recipe for Panzanella salad with mouse melons

Mouse melons
Panzanella salad

I made this summer salad, the ultimate in cucina povera, last night using all home-grown ingredients from the gorgeous knobbly tomatoes, to the over-ripened padron pepper which had turned red and spicy, to the absurd dolls house 'mouse melons' which taste of sour cucumber. The latter are very popular in Mexican cuisine. We've grown them for the first time this summer, on recommendation from Tom Moggach, author of The Urban Kitchen Gardener, an unusual and cute addition to our repertoire. The garden is stunning right now. What a fantastic year, so needed after the depressing yield of last year.
I've had panzanella salads with flat bread and with pizza dough but proper sourdough is the right way to go, for both taste and texture.
We had most of it last night but I mopped up the rest this morning and it was even better.

150-170g of torn up sourdough bread
olive oil
1 clove of garlic, grated finely
10 tasty tomatoes
1 onion, sliced thinly
1 chilli pepper, deseeded, sliced thinly
Half a cucumber, peeled and julienned (if you don't have mouse melons)
A handful of basil leaves
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
Black pepper
A handful of mouse melons, some sliced, some whole

Put your torn up sourdough onto an oven proof dish and toss with olive oil. Grate a clove of garlic over it and toss again.
Place in a low oven until slightly crispy at the edges. About 15 minutes.
In the meantime, slice the tomatoes, I did some sliced and some quartered.
Toss the onion, chilli pepper and cucumber (optional) with salt.
Then toss all the ingredients together with the basil leaves, red wine vinegar, adding olive oil, salt and black pepper to taste, then mix together including the sourdough.
Add the mousemelons on top.

To accompany this I did a quick bean dish:
2 red peppers from Riverford organics
1 clove garlic, minced
1 box of cannelini beans (380g)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 swirl of truffle oil

We've grown chillis, aubergines, tomatoes, potatoes and possibly sweet potatoes but no red peppers this year. So I roasted two from Riverford until the skins were black. I then peeled the skins off and ripped the pepper into soft strips, removing the seeds.
Using an oven proof dish, douse the red pepper strips with olive oil, salt and grated garlic, mix with the box of cannelini beans and heat for 15-20 minutes in a hot oven. When you remove it from the oven, add a swirl of truffle oil and black pepper.
Serve warm.

Tomorrow we have the Secret Garden Club session on Italian vegetables: tickets £30 for workshop and supper

Friday, 13 September 2013

Even potatoes get the blues

Our blue potatoes always surprise visitors to the Secret Garden Club. Historically potatoes have been cultivated in all shapes, sizes, and colours, and even today in the potato's original home in the Peruvian Andes you'll find many varieties available that would be completely unrecognisable to us. Potatoes in red, white and blue, very small, very large, irregular in shape, or long and thin. A far cry from the choice of big bakers vs small new potatoes that we tend to get in supermarkets here.

Salad blue potatoes: the pigment is an anthocyanin, an antioxidant also found in blueberries, blackberries, blackcurrants, cherries, grapes and red cabbage.
But blue potatoes, with skins of deep purplish-blue and purple flesh which cooks to a deep indigo, even Wedgwood blue, are still treated as a novelty in the UK, despite the fact that they have a long history in South America. We're often asked if the colour has been injected into the tuber - the answer is, of course, no. The blue pigment is caused by the presence of an anthocyanin, which is an antioxidant, leading nutritionists and others to attribute greater health benefits to blue potatoes. 

The specific variety we grow at the Secret Garden Club is Salad Blue, which is something of a misnomer as it's not actually a great for using in potato salad. It doesn't hold its shape too well when boiled, and does much better when steamed, chipped, roasted, sauteed or baked. It also makes spectacular blue mash (cook by steaming or baking before mashing).

Salad Blue potatoes as a distinct variety were first cultivated in Scotland in the 1900s, so they are well adapted to our climate. They are no more difficult to grow than any other potato, liking a slightly acid soil, and disliking frost.

We planted tubers in the open ground in late April, a bit later than usual as spring was so cold this year, and covered them with good compost. As the plants grew, we earthed up the stems (or 'haulms') drawing up soil around the plant, This ensures that all light is excluded from the growing tubers underneath - potatoes exposed to the light will turn green and poisonous. We also save grass cuttings from mowing the lawn and heap them over our potato plants: it's a little more unsightly than neatly earthed-up rows but it does the job.

We dug the potatoes up at the Secret Garden Club's Food From The Americas afternoon at the beginning of September, again, slightly later than usual thanks to the late growing season. These can be stored in a dark, cool place, in a paper bag or sack - don't keep them in plastic or they'll go soggy and don't keep them in the fridge, around 14-16 degrees is best. In practice, though, they are more often eaten up quickly.

While the blue varieties are just as versatile in the kitchen as 'ordinary' potatoes, it makes sense to cook them to show off the unusual colouring. Last year, for the Jubilee, the Secret Garden Club's Kerstin Rodgers created whole dressed salmon with Union Jack mash from red, white and Salad Blue potatoes for a feature in The Independent. We've served red, white and blue chips at the Secret Garden (always particularly popular with children) and earlier this year at our Heritage Potato afternoon, we served baked blue potatoes with creme fraiche and caviar.

For our American food afternoon, one of the dishes served was squash, blue potatoes and aubergines in a savoury chocolate sauce, or mole, (see photo, top). The aubergine is a bit of an interloper here. While the other ingredients are all American in origin, aubergines, despite being related to potatoes and tomatoes as members of the Solanum family, are actually native to Asia. We also used an Italian squash cultivar, Berrettina Piacentina, which has rich, dense and relatively non-fibrous flesh, so holds together well in a casserole or stir-fry.

You can find blue potatoes occasionally from farmers' markets and on mail order from Carroll's Heritage Potatoes. Seed potatoes for planting also available from Carroll's in early spring. 

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Mouse melon - is it a melon, or is it a cucumber?

Inspired by the description of mouse melons in Tom Moggach's book, The Urban Kitchen Gardener, we set out in search of seeds for the Secret Garden earlier this year.

Mouse melons (Melothria scabra), also known here as cucamelons, or Mexican Sour Gherkins (which just makes them sound unpleasant) come from central America, where they are known  as sandita ('little watermelon') and used in salsas, salads, pickles and desserts.

They are ready to eat straight from the plant when they are just a bit larger than a grape and really do look like miniature, dolls-house sized watermelons. Firm-skinned, but juicy inside, the flavour is like an astringent cucumber - cucumber dressed with lime juice, say. Perfect for adding a zingy kick to salads, and salsas, or slicing into drinks, or, as we did at the Secret Garden Club, eating straight from the plant as a snack.

We found our seeds from James Wong's Homegrown Revolution range for Suttons. Mouse melons are deceptively easy to grow even in our relatively cool and damp climate. They are not frost-hardy, so sow them indoors to start off with, either in modules or small pots, and keep them there until the weather has warmed up properly. They can be transferred outdoors in late May or even June, or you can raise them in a greenhouse. Give them something to scramble up - the plants send out small green tendrils which will wind round a stake, trellis, or the nearest other plant.

Other than that they need very little fussing over. The tiny yellow flowers will appear in July, followed by the distinctive oval fruits. These start ripening round about now and should keep going until October.

We've grown ours in the open ground, but by all accounts they do well in pots as well.

Suppliers: James Wong's Homegrown Revolution range, Suttons Seeds, also Victoriana Nursery Gardens.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Some like it hot - jalapeno and Padron peppers

Growing chilli peppers is addictive. They are so easy to raise and the rewards - a bountiful crop of glossy ripe peppers - so delicious that they are a must-have in the Secret Garden each year.

This year our two favourite varieties are the Spanish Pimiento de Padron, and the American japaleno. Of course, all chilli peppers are American in origin, as they were one of the plants brought back to Europe by the Spanish explorers in the early 1500s - it was Franciscan monks who brought the first pepper seeds to the Padron region of Galicia in north-west Spain, from where the Padron pepper was cultivated. These are served as tapas or pintxos dishes throughout northern Spain, sauteed in olive oil and sprinkled with salt, and eating them is something of a gamble. Most Padron peppers are mild, fruity and delicious, but a minority are hot, and it's impossible to tell which is which just by looking at them. You have to risk all by biting into them.

According to the Spanish phrase, "unos pican y otros no" ("some are hot and others not"). In practice it can be anything from one in 5 hotties to one in 15. Homegrown Padrons always seem to include more fiery ones than shop-bought, and the longer they stay on the plant, the more likely they are to be hot. I think.

Jalapeno peppers originate from Mexico and are a moderately hot chilli. They're picked and eaten when still a beautiful dark racing green colour and the slim conical fruits are smooth and glossy. Jalapenos are the variety of chilli which are smoked and dried to make chipotle; the fruits which are to be treated in this way will be left on the plant to ripen to a deep red colour before picking.

Chillies proved immediately popular not only in Europe but also in India and the Far East where they were taken to by Spanish and Portuguese traders. It's hard to imagine Indian and other Asian cuisines without chillies now, but before 1498, when the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama took the first chillies to India, they were unknown.

We are not terribly interested in growing record-breakingly hot chillies, preferring chillies that balance heat with flavour. Down at the lower end of the Scoville scale there are plenty of chilli varieties to give you plenty of kick, but also a more complex flavour behind the fire.

The Scoville scale measures the heat of chillies. It refers to the number of times that chilli extract can be dissolved in sugar water before the chilli heat can no longer be detected by the palate. It’s an imprecise scale because it relies on human taste buds, but useful in general terms, or to act as a warning if you can’t take too much chilli heat.

A sweet pepper has a Scoville rating of zero – no heat at all. The mild Padron peppers also score zero and the hotter ones up to 2,500. Jalapenos will come in at anywhere between 2,500 and 5,000 units. The hottest chillies were traditionally habaneros, at between 350,000-500,000 units, but in the last 10-20 years interest in cultivating ever-hotter chillies led to the bhut jolokia pepper grown at New Mexico State University in February 2007 clocking up over a million Scoville units. That’s more than twice as hot as the habaneros. The current record holder is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, which rated just over 2 million units, again at New Mexico State University – where they have a chilli pepper institute. It’s difficult to imagine just how hot that can be, but if I tell you that the testers reported that the chillies, when ground, were burning holes in their latex gloves, you get some idea. 

Chillies can be grown in the UK indoors, outside, in pots, growbags or in the open ground. Padron peppers are particularly good in our climate as they are adapted to the mild, damp climate from generations grown on the edge of the Atlantic in Spain. 

We sow our chilli seeds indoors in February, in small pots of ordinary multi-purpose compost. and then place them on a warm sunny windowsill to germinate, which takes about a week to ten days. Keep them in the pots until after the last frosts - around the end of April here in London, although we kept them indoors this year for longer than usual because of the cold. 

Then they can be planted out in a sunny, sheltered spot. We grow ours in large pots, three chilli plants to a 30cm tub, again filled with multi-purpose compost. After that, they can more or less be left to get on with growing themselves. They are relatively pest-free, although you should check for aphids every so often and wipe them off the leaves before they take a hold.

Flowers should start appearing in early July; the plants are self-fertile, and will reliably set fruit. They'll need watering once a week or so unless the weather is very rainy, and when the fruits start forming in July/August, we'll give them some tomato feed or seaweed extract a couple of times when watering. If the plants get very tall - some varieties will grow up to around 1.5m - they may well need staking, although our japalenos and Padrons have been quite happy so far this year without support.

The Padron peppers have been ready for harvest since the end of July and are best picked when around 5-6cm long - unless you like to find more hot than mild ones in your tapas.

Jalapenos need a longer season and will ripen a little later. We picked our first mature jalapenos this weekend and it looks like we'll have 2-3 a week from now on until the end of October or whenever we get our first frost.

Suppliers: Pimientos de Padron available from Franchi Seeds of Italy, Victoriana Nursery Gardens, and Nicky's Seeds, among others.
Jalapeno chillies available from Franchi Seeds of ItalyReal Seeds, Nicky's Seeds, Victoriana Nursery Gardens, and others.