Yesterday my daughter returned from her year studying food and culture at the University of Bologna, a year filled with adventures, not the least of which were about food. Her experiences reminded me of why I majored in art history–it was the only truly interdisciplinary major in those days at my school. Now there are many–to think that food and culture could be the pivot around which a course of liberal arts study is crafted…amazing! She brought home not only her stories but also Emilio, her Sicilian boyfriend who brought a bevy of food gifts from Sicily, including gems from his mother’s and his grandmother’s gardens and kitchens:
oregano (so fragrant and perfectly dry–ah for that climate when I’m trying to dry herbs, tomatoes and peppers!), sundried tomatoes packed in family-produced olive oil, capers, and a gorgeous, delicious candied
melon–and packets of seeds so I can grow Sicilian specialities such as pomodoro cuor di bue (heart- shaped tomatoes), melone retato degli Ortolani (beautiful melons), hot chiles, purple cauliflower, round eggplant (my daughter says they are the best she has ever tasted), several kinds of squash (zucca lagenaria da pergola lunghissima, zucca marina di chioggia, zucca lunga di napoli), violet artichokes, kohlrabi, rapini, and a special sort of chard.
What treasures! They bring home to me the richness of the earth’s and humanity’s offerings, how vegetables, fruit and herbs vary from region to region and have played such an important role in the rise of culture, how they can offer us strong yet comforting bridges to inter-cultural understanding. How sharing what we make allows us to taste one another’s culture. That the oregano is so perfect puts me right out there in the dry, desert-y sunshine–I bet the very earth smells of drying herbs. Between these gifts and the recipes Elizabeth has brought from Emilio’s family, I will be learning a good deal about Sicilian life and Emilio’s home without leaving my garden and kitchen. In turn he understands more about Elizabeth, our family and Vermont life as he tastes the local food, feels and smells our northern air, and sees what grows in field and garden. How much is missed if we only ever taste our own cultural traditions!
I’m also learning through a couple of excellent books about preserving the harvest and through classes about making cheese. From Pam Corbin’s indispensable The River Cottage Preserves Handbook, I’ve explored making herbal/ fruit syrups and cordials, French-style jams, and oil-preserved vegetarian soup bases.
Who knew that nasturtium seed pods are very much like capers and can be preserved as such? I’m afraid that the chipmunks will be sharing the seedpods this year instead of gorging on them and planting them all over the garden as they stash them for the winter. I’ve got plans for my Vermont nasturtium capers.
I’m also discovering how simple it is to make fresh cheese. Last weekend I took a class at a local raw milk dairy in making mozzarella and ricotta, and am about to try my hand at it on my own this weekend. I’ve long been unhappy with both mozzarella and ricotta I can get locally–I’ve resorted to convincing our local Italian specialty shop to let me buy from its own personal-use stock of ricotta, and I shell out far too much money for imported mozzarella di bufala once a month as a special treat. I can’t get fresh water buffalo milk in these parts–ha–but I’m going to experiment with all the local milk I have access to in search of best mozzarella ingredients now that I know how ridiculously easy it is to make.
Other experiments hum along. My first small ristras of paprika peppers are drying; mustard seeds await grinding into paste and mixing with other herbs; poppy seeds are harvested and stored; lemon verbena fills jars alongside chamomile and mint; oregano, marjoram, dill and thyme line the spice shelves; coriander and dill seedheads are drying; sage metamorphoses into elixir.
Soon I will dry tomatoes; can and freeze tomatillo salsa and soup; dry anchos, serrano, pasilla, aji and other hot peppers to grind for powder as well as store whole. I’ve picked the first peaches, learned that birds like plums as much as cherries (i.e. I lost our first plum crop to the goldfinches and robins), wish I had planted blueberries and fall-bearing raspberries as well as summer varieties, wonder about the huge size of the still-growing birdhouse and Corsican gourds, and wonder why I didn’t plant corn this year or strawberries. I’ve planted additional Lebanese squash, basil, beans and cucumbers for fall crops (I’ll put tunnels over them in the fall) as well as the usual successional array of greens and herbs.
I’m hungry for more recipes, know-how, and ideas about the harvest. If you have some you’re willing to share, I’d sure love to know about them! As the logo made by Emilio suggests, I’m on a journey around the world through my garden and kitchen, blogs and books, offerings and subscriptions. If you know of a stop I should make along this journey, do share!