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.


  1. That cavolo nero...what a colour! I cooked with the rainbow chard last night but it's got a rather beetrooty taste hasn't it? As you know I'm not mad about beetroot.
    The cicoria de treviso is gorgeous...have we that kind in the Secret Garden? I'm looking forward to our 'forcing' sesh this winter with chicory and rhubarb!

  2. I love your blog. I always try and make time to read it. It is always spot on. Thank you.

  3. Everything looks so healthy and delicious.

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