After the enforced idleness of winter, there has been much activity in the surrounding fields over the past week or so as our neighbours start preparing their orto – vegetable patch – for planting-out in a few weeks time.
These are enterprises on a heroic scale. Tonino – who owns most of the land bordering our own acre of Abruzzo – clears an area roughly 50m x 50m. Into this will go 200 tomato plants; rows and rows of potatoes, onions and courgettes; canellini and borlotti beans for drying; mounds of assorted salad greens and watermelons.
And how many mouths must this industrial-scale production feed? Two. Tonino and his wife Maria-Vincenza, who does the weeding and who, virtually non-stop throughout the summer, also skins and bottles 200 plants-worth of tomatoes to see them through winter.
During our first summer here, scarcely a day went by without Tonino staggering up our drive laden with surplus produce.
“Have a watermelon,” he’d say, dumping some giant 10 kilo specimen on the step.
“But you gave us one only yesterday,” we’d protest weakly.
We ended up hiding behind the sofa whenever we saw him coming.
And our best friend Rocco was just as bad. He turned up one morning with half-a-dozen strapping courgette plants.
“Do you like courgettes?” he asked.
“No, not really,” I replied.
Too late. He’d already planted them.
I tried to kill them by not giving them any water. But this plan was thwarted by the arrival of Rocco’s wife Angela, who gazed disapprovingly at the wilting plants before demanding water and starting to dig irrigation channels.
This rescue act resulted in courgettes of prodigious size and number, which Rocco viewed with astonishment on his next visit.
“Why haven’t you eaten any?” he demanded.
“Because I don’t like them.”
“Well you could have told me before I planted them,” he sniffed, “otherwise I wouldn’t have wasted them on you.”
Luckily, in our second summer, I eased the pressure of being the recipient of so much veggie bounty by clearing enough weeds for our own orto. But let's get things in perspective. Tonino’s orto measures some 2,500 square metres. Mine's about 150.
And how many tomato plants in my plot? Twelve. Three different varieties cunningly chosen to give us a continuous supply from June through to late September. Most get eaten as they ripen during the summer. Any left over come October get turned into tomato chutney. Brits will understand this…
What else? Sweetcorn, artichokes, pumpkins, parsnips, melons – sweet, small ones, not jumbo watery ones – red chillis of unbelievable ferocity – and brussels sprouts. Because I’m the only person in the entire world who likes them enough to grow them.
Aside from the fact that you’d need to drug Pauline and tie her up before she’d even consider being in the same room as a sprout, we eat what we produce. When we run out, we run out.
That first summer, I could see my orto continually getting checked-out, with the local contadini – smallholders – taking sly peeks when they thought I wasn’t looking as they trundled along in their tractors to their own giant plots.
Through Rocco’s none-too subtle probing, they discovered I was growing everything except the artichokes from see. This earned me a little kudos as the sheer weight of numbers needed to stock their own plots means they buy-in seedlings from the area’s many agricultural supply outlets.
But with a ‘bigger is better’ mentality governing orto size, my puny plot and strange choice of crops had me indelibly marked-down as a mere dilettante dabbler in the green arts.
Parsnip. There’s an Italian word for parsnip – pastinaca. Despite that, nobody had ever heard of it. Like a carrot? But white? And you roast it? Do they roast carrots in England too? Much doubtful shaking of heads.
Sweetcorn. Nobody grows it – except as animal feed. Supermarkets stock it. Not fresh, but boiled to within an inch of its life and vacuum-packed. Unusually horrible. In contrast, our fresh corn plucked off the stem and slapped on the barbecue is one of summer’s delights. The rest is picked at its prime and chucked straight in the freezer. A sweet, juicy, delicious winter treat.
Sprouts. Yet another 'mystery plant'. My description of them as ‘Belgian cabbage’ struck a chord. Rocco even tried a few – and professed to like them (but he’s never asked for any more…)
Pumpkins. Artichokes. Melon. Chilli. Tomato. Well yes, of course, here were crops that were understood and respected. But some of the varieties I was growing were unfamiliar – and therefore a bit suspect.
“So why do you grow the varieties you have in your orto?” I wondered.
“Because we’ve always grown them,” came the reply. “They’re traditional.”
Though this might seem conservative and unadventurous, think about it further and you’ll appreciate that with crop failure a gamble that can’t be entertained, the tried-and-tested varieties that stand-up to the 100˚ heat of an Abruzzo summer and prosper in the claggy blue clay of an Abruzzo hillside start to make perfect sense.
And why so much effort and over-production? Down again, I think, to tradition. There’s a deeply-ingrained belief among the local contadini that land is a precious resource and so every single square centimetre should be not just simply ‘productive’, but crammed full and made to yield the absolute maximum. It just goes against every principle they have to see even the tiniest patch of land lying fallow.
For me, aside from the extreme irritation factor, in the greater scheme of things it wouldn’t really matter if my entire orto perished one year. But seeing at first hand Tonino’s desolation two years ago when a wild boar comprehensively trashed his orto in a single night brings home the role they play in everyday life.
So in a couple of weeks, I’ll blow the dust off my heated propagators and plant seed. And I’ll fill my 1000-litre irrigation tank from a huge spring-fed trough just up the road. My neighbours arrive with tractors fitted with special gizmos that can slurp up a thousand litres from this trough in the twinkling of an eye. Takes me and my Heath Robinson arrangement of old hoses, smaller filler tanks hooked-up to the back of the car and cable snaking up from the house to power a pump a little longer. Actually a lot longer.
But – officially at any rate, as you’re not allowed to use mains water on your land – it’s a case of spring water, rain water – or digging a well. And as a well costs €70 a metre to excavate – without the guarantee of actually finding any water; and as it doesn’t rain much in summer – spring water it is.
It doesn’t all get used on the land though. Most locals prefer the spring water to bottled mineral water. Partly because it’s free; partly because it tastes good. Despite the ringing endorsements I got, it still took me two or three years to even take a sip of what I was convinced was going to be bacteria-ridden, bottled plague.
I needn’t have worried. The water is incredibly pure and comes straight down off the Majella. For reasons I can’t even begin to explain, it’s ice-cold even in the blazing height of summer. I’m now quite offhand about quaffing it back and I often see our braver guests marching purposefully off, empty San Pellegrino bottles tucked under their arm, for a free refill.
I should also mention the frutteto – the orchard. Further proof for all that the English are eccentric. For whatever reason, the necessity to grow fruit doesn't seem anywhere remotely as important as the compulsion to produce huge quantities of veg. Figs don't really count. They grow like weeds and everybody – including us – has an annual glut.
But we go further with white and yellow peaches; nectarine; apricots of astonishing succulence; a Muscat grape vine; damson and greengage; red, white and black currants; English apples. And rhubarb.
The currants, apples and rhubarb, being English and therefore not really happy abroad, are the spoiled brats of the orchard. Endless work, water and sustenance in return for tiny yields. One wrong move and they do the plant equivalent of throwing a tantrum. But the three little strawberry-and-rhubarb crumbles nestled in the freezer; the scant basket of apples that taste like…well…apple; and the home-made redcurrant jelly to go with Abruzzo lamb pretty well justify the effort.
You eat jam with lamb? Along with your roasted white carrots? Hahahahahaha!
By David Brenner
In 2007, after a lengthy career as a television broadcast journalist in the UK – latterly with BBC World – David, his wife Pauline and their three cats moved to Abruzzo , where they now run Villasfor2, providing three holiday rental villas just for couples. David still finds himself enchanted, bemused and infuriated by living in Italy – sometimes all at the same time – and his regular blog AboutAbruzzo charts daily life in this little-known region.