Summer seems especially reluctant to hand over the baton to autumn this year. While the days grow ever shorter, they remain deliciously warm, with a honeyed sun smiling down from cloudless skies, whose blue is softened by the finest veil of haze. And following sunsets of smouldering copper and crimson, the correspondingly longer nights are still mild enough to be filled with the gentle chirruping of the crickets, and then give way to hushed dawns that are the very essence of Keats’ “mists and mellow fruitfulness”.
It’s true it is now cool enough not to have to take refuge from the heat on the shady northern terrace , but this means we now spend more time on the main east- and south-facing sections where we continue to make the most of the golden warmth, admittedly no longer in shorts and T-shirts, but certainly not yet in pullovers. And as we look out over the sun-filled valley, the hints of bronze and amber slowly spreading across it are almost the only evidence of autumn’s arrival.
The strongest evidence of autumn’s arrival is, in fact, in the supermarket where the passage of the seasons is always clearly visible. For seasonal produce is a given here, a way of life. It isn’t a trend or a fad or part of the latest celebrity diet; it isn’t considered ‘cool’ or even especially ‘green’. It is simply 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 automatically imported from some faraway place where it is in season; it just isn’t available, except perhaps in the largest and poshest supermarkets, but it’s not guaranteed. Take artichokes, a highly-prized local speciality: for a couple of weeks back in May there were great mounds of them in the shops and people were buying dozens of them at a time, but just a few weeks later there was 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. 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. 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 finished. Consequently, peaches, nectarines, apricots and water melons have – naturally – now given way to squash, pomegranates, figs and grapes, and the pop-up shops selling nothing but Sicilian citrus fruits have just re-opened for their customary four-month season.
We have no sense of ‘making do’ with whatever is available, though, as if there is some lack or shortage. In addition to that vast and ever-changing cornucopia of seasonal produce in the peak of condition and packed with flavour, there is always a huge array of exclusively Italian-grown year-round staples like tomatoes (of course), courgettes, aubergines, peppers, apples and pears thanks to Italy’s remarkably varied climate and terrain which extends from the Alps to just short of Africa. Consequently, there is always something new to look forward to – and, therefore, nothing to get bored with either, like those insipid, pallid strawberries found in the UK all year round that are not so much cultivated as manufactured, and whose very ubiquity ceases to make them special. The strawberry season here, by contrast, lasts only a couple of months, but in the few weeks that strawberries are available, they are divine and we devour them by the kilo, relishing their intense flavour and deep colour. And because such seasonal delights are by definition transitory, each succeeding fruit or vegetable feels precious: it is something to be celebrated, often with a food festival, or sagra, and respected, with simple, unfussy cooking.
So even if we are still in shirt-sleeves and sandals, it must be autumn because our neighbouring village has just held its annual mushroom and chestnut festival.
Title taken from Pete Seeger’s song ‘Turn, turn, turn’, whose lyrics were taken from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and which was recorded by The Byrds in 1965.