Winter Tales 2: Gardens and gardening in Italy.

If your plane has ever circled to the south of Naples during the day, you will have seen the vast flatlands inland from the gulf – a chequerboard of shades of green, intensive cultivation, the silvery rectangles of row upon row of plastic tunnels.  It was all wetland until drainage began after WW2, and once valueless marsh, held in large estates, became a treasure trove.  The winter temperatures are never lower than 10C.  It is possible to get three crops a season, and the contents of those mixed salad bags at your local supermarket might well have been grown here.  It was this region we were about to explore.

But first, bonding experience 2, first thing the next morning.  There had been a violent rain storm during the night. None of us had realised that the hotel’s architect, keen on the external purity of the building, had had windows made that opened outwards, whilst remaining entirely vertical, all done by some natty levers, but leaving a gap at the top of the window.  Poor Natasha had been woken at 3.00am and told to close her window as the rain would get in.  J and my rooms were facing the side and back of the building, places where the night staff hadn’t looked.  We managed to keep cool.  N sweltered.  None of us could get the central cooling to work.  On top of that, the croissants were stale, and all there was for breakfast. The coffee was dire.  Revolution was in the air, only calmed, I think for all of us, by the sight of Eboli’s morning market.

Somehow, the English markets never quite get my tastebuds, or the desire for a nearby kitchen, really going.  Scotland is worse still, and even the occasional farmers’ markets are rather dour and healthful affairs.  But the Eboli market… well…
Great slabs of salt cod.  Cheeses.  Oils.  Fresh olives in all stages of ripeness – greenish, brown, black.  Still slightly green filberts.  Artichokes.  Fennels as big as footballs.  Radicchios in serried ranks.  Endless sorts of turnip tops (cima di rapa), broccolis, ones I didn’t even know the name of.  Chicories.  Escaroles.  Stalls selling perfectly grown seedlings of all of these to go in the ground now.  And, of course, oranges, tangerines, lemons, sumptuous pumpkins and squashes, tomatoes in a dozen sorts…  And courgette flowers!  With hardly a winter, why not?  In the far North, mine stopped flowering late September.  Oh, last trip to italy, had them stuffed with minced shallots and prawns and a few grains of rice.  And…  Anyway, the whole thing made me seriously ache for a nearby kitchen…  If I ever go to Eboli, let alone Salerno, again, it’s going to be to a flat, not an hotel…  What ever is the point of being in Italy without a kitchen?  And on and on…  Anyway, mouth watering, I was dragged reluctantly away by the scruff of the next, protesting…  To a rose farm…
The electrically controlled gates slid back.  A scruffy farmyard… Dogs…  A few dusty orange trees… We were given leaves to sniff: if you grow a citrus in your conservatory or your yard, you’ll know that the leaves are an added bonus to the flowers and fruit. But then…  well, we were given some lemon leaves to try.  We oohed and ahhhed at the delicious smells, but were then waved over to a citrus bush with rather larger coarser leaves… No fruit to be seen…  The grower gave use ones to crush, sniffing his own leaf very appreciatively.  I’m not sure I’ve ever smelt anything quite so ravishing.  It’s absolutely a ‘must have’ citrus, should you ever see one. It’s call ‘the Hand of Budhha’, in China so appreciated that copies of its fruit were once carved in jade, though looked at objectively, the fruit is rather deformed and ugly.  Who could even begin to care?  I did try to snitch a cutting, but the branches proved too wiry.  Note: never travel without secateurs.  Note to myself: buy a plant (try Columbia Road market in London next Sunday).  Try peel, with other lesser lemons, to make limoncello.

Then into the huge range of plastic tunnels, and neat rows of exuberant roses, coiled around by water tubes, feed tubes, stretching into the distance.  Tiny red roses.  Pale mauve roses.  Elizabeth.  Peace.  White roses, spherical in bud,  with oddly coloured margins to the petals, all looking a bit like tennis balls atop wires.  Not nice.  All hybrid teas.  No perfume whatsoever. Apparently perfumed sorts don’t travel well, though I would have thought that that was at least a third of the charm of a rose missing, and wondered too, if …. well, at once I wanted to try out other roses from other groups.  And especially the ‘David Austin’ roses, hybrids with some of the best antique Albas, Bourbons and so on with modern long-season roses…  Not that I want them in the garden, but, cut, they should last as well as Hybrid Teas.  I’d forgotten, though, that I’d once interviewed a very grand florist in London about these – see the adjacent post ‘Charlotte’.

We were getting behind schedule.  The mozzarella ‘make’ had finished, and the place was being hosed down.  And buffalo mozzarella too, light flavoured, slightly rubbery when just made.  I’ve never eaten so much ever before, though.  Odd stuff, I thought, but not the ricotta made from the buffalo whey.  Mmmm… delicious.  and being made into delicious things…  Beaten up with canned pears, it made an exquisite cream to layer thickly between round almond biscuits.  With a bit of decoration on top, a dessert fit for princes.  The company (see below) also made pannetone with buffalo butter, much richer thereby than the sort of pannetone available in British delis, tho with a narrower range of crystallised fruit and peels inside.  Made me wonder if, sprinkled with one of the nicer grappas, it mightn’t make something special too.  And then off again…  This time, orchids.
More electronic metal gates…  A huge shed…  buildings inside.  Over to the left some whopping shelved trolleys, each shelf supporting perhaps 200 plants, strap shaped leaves, all identical, and all cymbidiums… Then to a vast range of tunnels, with young orchids stretching almost as far as the eye could see.  But these were all youngsters, so no flower yet.  The Salernian end of the business grows on young plants, either from seed, from meristem propagation, or just simple division.  The youngsters then get shipped back to Holland, are brought into flower, then shunted onto the market.  The plants were mostly Cymbidium grandiflorum varieties, fairly easy things to grow in the house, though they like outdoors in shade during the summer.  Mine flower erratically, though are so nice when they do, that I never quite get round to throwing them out.  As far as the Salernian growers are concerned, though, the big profit margins and the development capital, mostly remain abroad and does not hugely benefit the local economoy.  Still, it’s a living.

Our hosts were alternating our interests: wine next.  More gates.  Nice lunch.  Cellar with ranks of stainless steel vats, of which the owner was proud.  New oak barrels in the next.  Samples.  N looked quite steely for a moment, glances at J, said something soothing.  And so on.  Finally, at lunch, J asked mischievously, what the owner reckoned his best, best, wine would fetch.  ‘400’, was the reply.  Silence.  The general verdict, reached privately later, was ‘a good day at Tesco’.  Ah well…

And then a second visit to the trade fair.  I bought some chesnut honey. The others bought other goodies.  We took our seats for the cooking demo.  Were duly televised as ‘foreign journalists’.  And waited.  I suppose we were envisaging something with lots of flames, delicious smells, frantic note taking and so on….  After a while, some teenagers dressed as cooks lined up on stage.  A lady compere arrived.  Some dignitaries from a local cookery school.  Much of Italy is stuffed with glitzy cookery schools.  This was not one of them.  A student put what looked like a chocolate muffin on a plate, poured over some sauce, added some candy fencing and a few candy leaves.  Voila.  Slight applause.  The school’s director (we assumed) began to talk.  Our translator was the young woman who gave us chocolate and chesnut pastries the previous evening, and who turned out to be fun, charming and fluent (and a language student at Salerno).  He was still talking.  She gave up translating.  The compere began to look alarmed.  He was still talking as we slipped away.  Supper.

Which was at Francesca’s very prettily set up restaurant up in the old town.  J and N rummaged through the wine list, and settled on something they would like.  It was indeed very pleasant.  Food pleasant enough.  However, Francesca dedicates the place to the Arts as well, to which end tables all had books of poetry on each – Verlaine, Rimbaud, d’Annuzio were the ones I’d heard of.  As, later, we left (J professing true love to anyone within earshot), some very artsy lady clients indeed began to arrive.

And so home to bed in the orange hotel.  As I walked along the corridor to my room, a door opened and a haggard man stared angrily at me for several moments as I passed.  I slipped into my room and carefully bolted the door.

Restaurants and suppliers:

Oh, and if you are as fascinated by tomatoes as I am, have a look at my Android app – Tomato Trivia

Georgian Gardens should be available on Kindle in the next week or so.  It has sections on history, design and its changes through the period, contemporary planting schemes (large and small), maintenance and gardeners.  Plus a gazetteer of some of the more interesting gardens.

The Kindle book Old Fashioned Flowers is finding a good few buyers.  It describes seventy odd  genera,  often lists some delightful sorts still available.  There are hundreds of pictures.  I’m afraid there will be a slight gap before a similar work appears dealing with kitchen garden crops.  However, Georgian Gardens, with a long section on 18th century kitchen gardens should be on Kindle in a week or two.

If you buy, and enjoy, O.F.F., it would be lovely if you reviewed it.

Hope you enjoy the new posts…


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