I gently squeezed the ruby-red orb nestling in the fruit bowl: the slight give beneath its delicate velvety skin confirmed that it was ready to eat. I inhaled its seductive floral fragrance as I lifted it to my mouth and slowly pressed my teeth into the fruit, trying to prolong the satisfying, barely whispered ‘pop’ of the skin splitting open before savouring that first exquisitely juicy mouthful of deep orange flesh. The luscious ambrosial taste of sun-soaked summers exploded in my mouth, and in the same instant unleashed a stream of happy memories of the many camping holidays we had enjoyed in Italy long before the idea of moving here had ever occurred to us. Back then our first ‘home’ in Italy was a faded green ridge tent, and some years later our beloved camper van, but our breakfast remained the same: huge sun-warmed peaches bought from a roadside stall or street market – never cut into dainty segments, mind, but guzzled whole in great dribbly bites. I recalled those early touring holidays as I slurped greedily at the ripe flesh, the juice running through my fingers and trickling down my wrist, the delicious messiness still as much part of the enjoyment as it had been back then. What made my enjoyment of that particular peach the other day so special though, was that it was the long-awaited First of the Season.
Seasonal, local produce such as that heavenly first peach of summer isn’t ‘a thing’ here; something that right-on urban hipsters have decided is ‘cool’ or whose green virtues self-sufficient eco-types promote. It isn’t a trend, or a fad, or part of the latest celebrity diet. It is simply a way of life; an integral part of the food culture that is central to Italian identity, and whose century-old traditions are still adhered to. Essentially, if a particular fruit or vegetable (or meat or fish, come to that) isn’t in season in Italy, it isn’t imported from some faraway place where it is in season; it simply isn’t available, not even in the largest or poshest of supermarkets. Take artichokes, a highly-prized local speciality: one week there were great mounds of them in the shops and people were buying dozens of them at a time (goodness knows that they were doing with them all though, unless it was preserving them in olive oil), but just a few weeks later they were gone. Not a single one to be found. The thing is, though, there was clearly no expectation either from consumers or from shops that people’s voracious appetite for the greeny-purple thistle-like vegetable could (and even less should) be satisfied by extending the season with imports flown in at great cost from half way round the globe – don’t get Mr Blue-Shirt started on food miles, by the way. The season was over, as simple as that. And it had been exactly the same with the asparagus, which is a vegetable that both Mr Blue-Shirt and I adore and will happily eat every day of the season given the chance, but which had disappeared from the shelves before we had had a chance to get through our list of favourite asparagus dishes. Chief among these, by the way, is chargrilled until just starting to go slightly limp, then scattered with lashings of grated parmesan and grilled until the cheese just begins to brown and bubble… And we couldn’t have continued working our way through our list using asparagus flown in from Peru (even if we had wanted to) because there wasn’t any: the season was over. While a host of pop-up shops appeared in autumn selling nothing but Sicilian clementines and tangerines, come the new year they had all closed – and won’t re-open until autumn comes around again. I haven’t seen a grape for months, and although I can buy those fantastic peaches (and nectarines – Mr Blue-Shirt’s preference) by the crate, it will be an age before there are any figs in the shops. And by that time, butternut squash, a quintessentially autumnal vegetable for me which I wouldn’t dream of eating in summer, should re-appear too.
We have no sense of ‘going without’, however, or ‘making do’ with whatever is available; as if there is some lack or shortage. For a start, because Italy extends from the Alps to just short of Africa, the climate and the terrain are actually remarkably varied, meaning that there is always a huge array of exclusively Italian-grown year-round staples like tomatoes (of course), courgettes, aubergines, peppers, apples and pears – and lots of different varieties, too. But in addition to this, there is a vast and ever-changing cornucopia of seasonal produce in the peak of condition and packed with flavour – that is sold loose and comes in all shapes and sizes, too. That’s not to say there is no imported produce; there is. But this typically includes items that are obviously ‘foreign’ such as pineapples, bananas (and, to our surprise, avocados), that are completely alien to traditional Italian cuisine. Consequently, our diet is rich and varied and there is always something new to look forward to. Conversely, there is nothing to get bored with, either – like those insipid, pink all-year strawberries found in the UK that are not so much cultivated as manufactured – at huge environmental cost, no doubt: sunless, soulless and utterly flavourless. And whose very ubiquity ceases to make them special, their familiarity breeding contempt. The strawberry season here, by contrast, was relatively short this year, but in the few weeks strawberries were available, they were divine and we devoured them by the kilo, making the most of their intense deep flavour and intense deep colour. So because such seasonal delights are by definition transitory, each succeeding fruit or vegetable feels precious: it is something to be celebrated (often with its own food festival, or sagra) respected (with simple, unfussy cooking) and relished. Like my fabulously messy peach the other day.