Winter Tales: Italian Gardens and Gardening

There…  Vesuvius on one side, grey, cloud-capped, waiting.  On the other, the bay of Naples, also mostly grey, occasional breaks in the cloud giving patches of glitter to the waters.  We are skimming south along the motorway through the tatterdemalion outskirts of the city, modern blocks of modest flats, rusting factories and chimneys, empty houses, orange and pistachio trees, palms, tangles of morning glory.  Ugly, unplanned, perhaps no-one cares.  Perhaps they’re all waiting too, for the fiery god of Vesuvius to reawaken. Still, for us northerners, the sight of trees laden with persimmons and oranges, and occasionally that very special yellow of lemons, gives a special lift to the heart.

Naples blends with hardly a greening into the next city.  Was that Battipaglia?  Then we are high above Salerno, looking down at the vast docks and railway sidings.  Cruise ship, ferries, merchantmen seem not to move.  The city looks curiously indeterminate from so high above, though we later find it to be vibrant, almost drowned in its history, sometime beautiful.

We head further south.  The saying is that ‘Christ stopped at Eboli’.  Should he have existed, and should he have come to Italy, he might more usefully have drawn the line at Salerno.  Our first sight of Eboli was not encouraging, though I must say that by the end of our few days there, at least I began rather to like it.

I was travelling with wine/food/travel writers James and Natasha.  If you follow the links, they will speak for themselves.  Our first moment of bonding happened when we re-emerged from our hotel rooms.  Ok.  The showers were good.  But the rooms were like living inside a tangerine – orange nylon curtains, orange woven plastic panels on the headboards, and similarly coloured  panels stuck wherever such a panel could go.  And, in a land of real flowers, posies of nylon roses stood on the tables.  These, though, were as nothing to the flower arrangements in the corridors, towering constructions so vast and so ferociously colourful that even a triffid would have fled for its life.

Our host, Marco, was charming, knowledgeable, fluent in English, travelled, and patient with our shaming lack of Italian, and lack of appreciation of the hotel.  We were off to the first of our official engagements – to have a look at an exhibition entitled ‘Millefiori’, based in a couple of tents in the main square of Eboli, and devoted to honey, roses, and a punch and judy show.  More of all that later, though the judy did look rather like Mrs Thatcher. And then on to a factory that makes liqueurs (yes, of course lemoncello – here from particular varieties of lemon, but some other serious delights too), and distilled grappa from individual varieties of local grape.  Amazing.

Some of the local honey was totally delicious: orange blossom surprisingly delicate considering the opulence of the flowers’ perfume, honey of the spring hillsides richer, herby, darker in colour, chestnut almost overpowering and, back in the North, delicious drizzled over a decent vanilla icecream.  But there, honey is quite widely used in cooking, and a cookery demonstration was promised for the following day.  We were filled with anticipation.

The point of the exhibition was to try and give a platform to the numerous small producers and collectors both of honey, flowers, vegetables, hazel and chestnuts a platform to reach a wider audience.  Whether that is a feasible idea I doubted, at least for the honey gatherers; most of the ones I’ve met over the years are usually of rather independent mind, often to the point of mild eccentricity.  Few would happily adapt to co-operative life.  Nevertheless, it is an important initiative; the gorgeous coastline of Campania creates wealth for itself.  Making a living inland is a lot harder.

So, having sampled honey of all colours and consistencies, having tasted propolis (bitter but supposedly healthful), some delicious cookies filled with chestnut and chocolate (unhealthful but only the most obsessed would care), we were whisked off for a tasting of liqueurs.

In this land of lemons, winter temperatures seldom fall below 10degrees C.  and lemons produce three waves of fruit a year.  There are, though, lemons and lemons.  Different shapes, different aromas, sizes, pith thickness and so on, serve to differentiate the various varieties. One often seen in northern conservatories is the ‘Imperial’, but the one most grown around here is called ‘Verdehlo’, after the grape with a rather lemony tang to it.  Have a look for it if you want to make your own liqueur; producing lemoncello is a fairly simple process, but the firm we visited produced it in several grades, best and most expensive from the poshest DOC lemons, and the next from the rest (we also discovered in nearby Amalfi that a sharper liqueur is made from unripe lemons).

OK.  Delicous stuff.  Works for me as an excellent digestif.  But the firm also produced more.  Liqueurs of ripe walnuts, dark brown, like malmsey on speed, of green walnut shells, of liquorice (delicious), of mountain herbs, of fennel (that would be wonderful with an espresso), of wild strawberry and more…  Already a little glazed, we moved onto the grappas.

Grappas are not to everyone’s taste.  On trying one made from the widely grown local grape, Aglianico, I though I heard someone mutter something about motorbike fuel. Perhaps I was mistaken. The grappa from the Greco di Tufo grape was less astringent, richer flavoured, and rather nice.  After that my taste buds gave up, and we were whisked back to Salerno.


Well, primarily, the Christmas illuminations.  The LED has a lot to answer for at Christmas.  In the little park in the city centre, LEDs swing, dripped, erupted, floated; they made fountains, chandeliers, palms trees and crosses between all three, illuminated swans that Ludwig of Bavaria would have killed for, and much much more.  It was said, not sure by whom, that when the illumination were switched on, the rest of Salerno went dim.  All good fun, but we discovered, later, up in the old city, that some of the lights made the city magical indeed.

But first, supper.  Billed as a ‘traditional’ restaurant, this meant a simply decorated space, large numbers of tables, a simple bill of fare.  Almost at once I felt sick for the South.  Sick for somewhere whose tomatoes thrilled the palate, where the fish was the morning’s catch, and so on.  N had a simple pizza, a thinnish smear of a sieved tomato sauce, flavoured with anchovies and a thin scatter of capers.  It was sensationally good.  J had one with a light cheese sauce, broccoli and broken up pieces of sausage.  OK.  I had a simple thing of curled cones of pasta, tiny clams, and tomato…  They were very lightly cooked, and totally, totally delicious.  In the North, we don’t really know what tomatoes are.  Glasshouse ones don’t compare.  Canned ones don’t compare.  Even air freighted ones loose their aromatics in transit…  Life in the North is hard indeed.

Wines were more of a problem.  The English food writer Elizabeth David, now becoming forgotten, thought this region’s wines, grown on volcanic soil, were harsh, unyielding and lacking in fruit (in Italian Food, first published in 1975, now in numerous editions).  J and N told me that this was old hat: now, volcanic soil grown grapes were very much in much demand…  Had Elizabeth had a ghost, it would have grinned cattily.  The wine was harsh, unyielding, and lacking in fruit.  J and N glanced at one another, remained silent, and moved their glasses to a neutral part of the table.  Poor Marco disappeared to the backlands of the restaurant, and a pleasant bottle Falerno del Massico arrived… not at all bad.  After all, it was Bacchus himself who turned Mount Massico into a vast vinyard.  He knew what he was doing.

But OK, gardens…  Well, gardens had to wait for the second day, and there were some, for me, remarkable highlights – and my first sight of a very rare lemon variety which turned out to have the most exquisitely perfumed leaves, more so, I thought, than any other citrus – the ‘Hand of Budhha’.  Amazing.

By the way, the header pic is of the quite entrancing morning market in the heart of Eboli.

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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