Vegetable growing is something of a competitive sport round here – a summer diversion to fill the gap left by the absence of football.
But not the ‘Biggest Pumpkin”; “Longest Bean”; or “Reddest Tomato” so beloved of village fetes in England.
No. In our corner of Abruzzo, the focus – as with so much else in Italy – is on size. You’ll hear that “So-and-so’s planted 200 tomatoes”, whispered in a blend of admiration and envy.
Huge vegetable plots are cultivated, producing prodigious quantities of food that no family could possibly eat and demanding equally heroic labours to keep them tended and watered.
Of course, nobody’s going to attempt to scoff their way through the fruits of 200 tomato plants which all ripen at the same time, so they’re bottled for winter.
And that’s a process that keeps entire families occupied through the long summer evenings and has the makers of glass jars rubbing their hands with glee.
Our much-loved local village supermarket Scriz has shelf-loads of jars of all different sizes. Lids – naturally – are sold separately. A jar on its own costs just a few centesimi, but multiply that by the number needed to hold over a thousand kilos of toms and the outlay is hefty.
And prior to bottling, each tomato in that thousand-plus kilos has got to be skinned. Every. Single. One.
You could ask why everyone doesn’t save time, money and much else besides by simply buying tins of tomatoes. (Which are singularly excellent).
This’d enable people to sit outside on warm summer evenings drinking wine and chatting. Two other past-times just as dear to Italian hearts as vegetables.
But that’s not the point. Not only is bottling tomatoes a must-observe tradition, so is the production of sufficient quantities of veg like pumpkins and potatoes that’ll store through winter and provide many months of sustenance and village bragging rights.
But the mountains of courgettes and salad greens that have to be eaten fresh cause a problem. Hence Rocco’s not-particularly-for-any-reason visit yesterday.
After the usual preambles and grumbles about this’n’that and midway through the grappa that followed on from the beer, he asked what we were growing in our veg patch this summer.
Sweetcorn; three different kinds of tomato (and just twelve plants in total, just in case you’re thinking I’ve become caught-up in the ‘more-is-better’ philosophy); runner beans; brussels sprouts; melons; two different sorts of pumpkin; artichokes; and parsnips
“Ah,” said Rocco, sensing an opening, “no salads ?”
“Don’t you eat salads ?”
“Sure. But maybe only two or three times a week.”
He looked a little crestfallen. “Would you like some ?”
Ungracious it may have been, but I declined the offer because the last time I said “yes please” he arrived with a jumbo carrier bag stuffed with about a dozen heads of assorted greenery, one of which we ate while the other eleven rotted overnight.
He also gave me three courgette plants.
Let it be known that along with green peppers, courgettes are one of the few things I won’t willingly eat.
Let it also be known that you can’t kill courgette plants by not watering them. Which is what I slyly tried to do. Far from dying, they produced mammoth quantities. Which because they remained on the plant grew to vast sizes
Rocco’s wife, the formidable Angela, arrived to check on the progress of her gift and appalled by the sight of wilted leaves, immediately started digging irrigation channels and dousing the plants with gallons of water. Which spurred them onto even greater heights of production.
“Don’t you like courgettes ?” asked Rocco, surveying the uneaten, unwanted glut.
“Well…no. Not really.”
“Then why did you ask me for them ?”
A question to which there was no answer…