Saturday, April 19, 2008
A Nonscientific Observation of Italy, Part 1: Agriculture
I'm back. I'm married. I'm very, very happy. My wedding was an important time, beautiful and exceeding every expectation, but I'm still thinking it over, reflecting on it, and working it out. I'm not ready to write about it yet. On the other hand, I'm more than ready to write about our honeymoon in Italy, from which I just returned and during which I took all sorts of notes.
Like everyone who visits Italy, I've come back smitten with the beauty of the architecture, the tangible art, and the living history. I could write pages and pages about the way Florence's duomo filled our inn window with its colorful geometry or how Venice really does glitter. I could tell you that David is stunning and the food, well the food is heavenly. But hasn't everyone heard that before? Isn't that why so many go to Italy in the first place? So instead of falling into the trap of describing the well-trodden paths of centuries of tourists, I'll try writing a series of posts on various subjects that may seem a little less familiar. I am quite aware that these observations may be far from reality. I was a love-struck observer for just over a week in a country that I can in no way claim to understand. But I'll give it a shot anyway, as long as the reader bears with my biases and naivety. I'll start with, for me at least, the obvious place to start: growing food.
If the readers of this site haven't noticed already, I'm a geek of all sorts, especially when it comes to plants. I'm a vegetable-garden-junkie, so as ECG and I traveled from Rome north, zigzagging across the country, I scribbled all sorts of notes on what I saw happening in balconies, yards, and small farms.
The first thing I noticed about Italy, as we took the train from the airport into the city, is the fact that every spare piece of land behind every apartment building, no matter how run down or elegant, housed plots where people grew vegetables. As well, above the train and everywhere else we explored in Italy, apartments sprouted balconies festooned with wisteria (blooming in various stages up and down the country), sedums, geraniums, herbs, or a combination of these. Everyone's hands seem to be in the dirt, even those of city dwellers.
ECG and I found seedshops and mini garden centers all over, even in the most concentrated centers of cities and towns. We couldn't wander a few blocks without encountering a florist who sold flowering plants as well as food plants and vegetable and herb seeds.
Even in Rome, fascinating, filthy, ancient-boned and graffiti-walled Rome, food plants grew. Between the cobbles of the maze of narrow streets in the historic center, rogue arugula plants caught my eye. In the ruins of the Forum and Colosseum, figs and apricot trees shot haphazardly from crumbling corners. Sturdy stalks of fennel were just beginning to bloom, bolstering eroding banks.
Food is famously central to the culture of Italy: is part of food's importance due to the fact that the country is full of gardeners? Is it related to the fact that so many good foods grow wild, from the bay trees that fill the more southernly groves to the wild cherries that sprinkle the forests of higher elevations and latitudes?
As we drove through different areas of Italy, I noted different farming and gardening habits based on regional climates and geographies. Here are some of the notes that I took.
Rome to Pisa and Florence
Fennel is a weed and grows lushly along roadways with thick flower stalks. Olive trees invade even the forests. Every backyard—and sometimes even front yard—garden includes at least a couple lemon, fig, and orange trees. Between rows of fruit trees in the small orchards, fava beans grow, providing nitrogen for the trees as well as a food crop. Right now, it is olive pruning time, and after shaping the trees into short, wide urn-shapes, farmers burn the branches. Small vineyards cover hillsides. Here, it is hard to tell whether the grape or the olive reigns supreme. Every once in a while on the more remote roads, we spot a small (no more than five at a time) herd of the famous, giant white chianina cows. In good restaurants, we are able to order bistecca fiorentina, the huge filet-plus-t-bone steaks from the chianina. Nowhere did we see large herds of animals. Purple-headed artichoke fields are everywhere.
Florence to Bologna
Mountains! In the lower elevations, grapes and olives grow, but as we climb higher, we encounter less grapes and no more olives. All citrus and fennel disappear. Instead, hedgerows are full of wild apples, cherries, and roses. Muscari and primrose also grow wild along the road banks. The farms, and there are many, seem to grow wheat. Solid, bright green grassy fields blanket hillsides. We see no more favas or artichoke fields, although I do see small clumps of artichokes in yards, planted under fruit trees, some of which are just beginning to bloom. Work horses relax in green paddocks and chickens cluck in just about every yard. We see small herds of sheep.
Bologna to Dolo and Venice
It is flat. Flatter than flatness. It reminds me of the Central Valley of California, though clearly not as hot. In each small town on the flat plain, a tall steeple marks the center, so towns are recognizable for miles. Windbreaks of poplar and beech frame the flat fields, protecting them from the gusts that must bulldoze their way through here at other times of the year. Unlike the way I've seen fruit trees growing in other areas of Italy, here the trees are espaliereed into narrow rows and are very closely planted. The orchards are mostly apple and pear. Rapini grows as weed here. I don't see the red poppies I saw further south, but they may not be blooming yet because of the difference of climate. Closer to Venice, lots of vineyards, pruned high, fill the fields—the grapes are just beginning to bud. Also, we see large, flat, very green fields—rice?
Dolo to the Lakes and Malpensa
Leaving Dolo, we see artichokes again, silver this time instead of the purple farther south, planted along the edges of gardens, especially interplanted among fruit trees. Also, peas begin to show up, climbing supports made from twigs stuck in the ground. At this time of year, the pea vines are about a foot and a half tall. Lots of cherry trees, smaller cultivated onces than the wild ones we saw in the forests at higher elevations, mark the ends of rows in frequent vineyards. I see apricot trees too, pruned into wide urn shapes, but the apple and pear trees we see are still pruned in the tight espaliereed rows. We see more orchards closer to Brescia, where the terrain becomes quite hilly. In the mountains around the lakes, we see (and hear) herds of sheep.
These observations (and others) lead me to the following conclusions:
1) Agriculture here is highly regionalized. The mass shipping of produce from one geographic area to another distant area doesn't seem to happen nearly as much as in the United States. For example, when we ordered artichokes in Rome, they were purple; in Venice, silver-green. The house wines were always local. Even the sparkling water we found in restaurants and shops, although not an agricultural product, was local. It got bubblier the further north we went.
2) The regionalized agriculture leads to regionalized agricultural products: the house salami and cheese we bought at a roadside farm stand in one area is quite different from the salami and cheese at a stand in another area.
3) The average person appears to be more aware of where his or her food comes from, especially since frequently, some of it comes from his or her yard.
4) Farming appears to be small-scale, apparently creating produce and products that are healthier (and thereby tastier) than the large-scale products found here in the United States. This is logical: a farmer can really know his animal, tree, or vine if he or she only has a manageable number of them.
Why is Italian food so famously wonderful? It clearly starts with the farming and gardening practices. Conscientiously raised food tastes better.