Paolo Arrigo would like to put us straight about a few things: For one, Italy is not all about sunshine. Paolo's family hails from northern Italy, just below the Alps. Three quarters of the country is mountainous, he reminds us, and it gets very cold indeed. So, as the salad days of summer edge away, we consider growing winter leaves, with the help of venerable seed merchants Franchi Seeds, available from Seeds of Italy for European gardeners and from Grow Italian for US gardeners.
Above: The River Café, London. Photograph via Anna Wardrop Design.
The notion of growing-cooking-eating is intertwined in an enviable way in Italy. Renowned London restaurant The River Café, a leader in Italian gastronomy, recognizes this with a year-round garden. Chilled by the cold winds of the River Thames, plants survive in wooden crates and actually, they thrive on it. Chicories, with their cousins radicchio and endive require sub-zero temperatures to mature and sweeten.
Above: Grumolo Verde, proud member of the chicory family, £1.49 per packet, at Seeds of Italy. For US gardeners, a packet of Chicory Grumolo Verde seeds is $3.45 from Seeds from Italy. Photograph by Natoora, via Flickr.
"You are always in sight of the mountains in Italy," says Paolo "And you can ski in Sicily too." The Italian ciccoria, which includes wild dandelions, wouldn't have it any other way. Radicchio—which means red chicory—is only local to the Veneto region; it needs those mountain blasts.
Above: Italian winter lettuce. Photograph via Celia Hart.
We can grow lettuce as small leaves indoors on the windowsill or in a pot by the back door. A cold frame is ideal however, providing shelter early on. Seeds of Italy has several impressively hardy varieties, including Meraviglia D'Inverno San Martino which you can sow in a cold frame now, according to Paolo Arrigo, and harvest until the end of March; £2.49 per packet, at Seeds of Italy.
Salad greens of course are not limited to lettuce. Young leaves of chard work well as does spinach. With a more sophisticated grasp of varieties and their multiple uses, Italians treasure winter leaves. They are also suited to unfriendly climates elsewhere. Paolo again: "Our varieties have provenance and regionality and are local. They are much hardier than seeds shipped in from very hot countries."
Above: If you like spinach and you like chard, you could grow Erbette, a cross between the two. Photograph by Natoora, via Flickr.
Lucy Boyd of Petersham Nurseries is sowing them now, along with red orach and winter purslane, to add to the salads at the celebrated café. Seeds of Italy has a variety called Tortelli Di Erbette, £2.49 per packet. For US gardeners, Erbette Organic Chard is $4.95 per packet of seeds from The Cook's Garden.
The attitude to food in continental Europe is fundamentally different but makes perfect sense. Says Paolo: "Food in Italy starts with the seed and seed is sold where food is sold. Go to an Italian market and you buy tomato seeds," he continues. "Plus tomatoes; tomato plants and everything made with the tomato." This is why Franchi Seeds is sold in Italian delis, as well as by mail order.
Mizuna, rocket, and mustard leaves are very quick to bolt in summer and with so much choice around some avoid sowing them altogether. Better to wait until the temperatures cool and there is less to choose from. None of these strong flavors give the sense of "making do."
Above: Rapini, aka Cime di Rape. Photograph by Oysters4me via Flickr.
As with chard, spinach and its relations, rapini doubles up as a raw young-leafed salad green or can be blanched, its leaves cooked for slightly longer than the budding tips. Ciccoria also lends itself to risotto. Seeds of Italy has Rapa Da Foglia Senza Testa seeds, which is described as a turnip without a bulb, at £1.49. For US gardeners, a packet of Rapa De Foglia Senza Testa seeds is $3.15 from Grow Italian.
Above: Overwintering greens in the fall. Photograph by heisler via Flickr.
Lambs lettuce (£1.89 per packet) is one of the hardiest varieties of salad green and it hails from the Leben region of Italy, near Paolo's family in the Alpine foothills. For US gardeners, a packet of Mache Lambs-Corn Salad seeds is $2.25 from UFseeds.
Always ready to share useful information, Paolo suggests: "Eat these melt-in-the-mouth leaves with cod's roe drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice."
Franchi Seeds are available in Australia from The Italian Gardener.
For more Italy-inspired food see Required Reading: Kitchen Memories by Lucy Boyd.