As Christmas approaches, my thoughts turn back to the preceding year and I begin to write our annual Christmas Letter recapping the year’s events. It not only keeps our family members updated, but also serves as a reflection for me on the ups and downs of the year. Pondering a topic for the Italian Gardener column, I thought I would share with you my gardening background.
My earliest memories of gardening was working with my parents on their farm. There were always jobs that fit every age of the children. Cutting onion and garlic tops was one of those early jobs, as was using an old paint bucket to pick prunes. But I was interested in more than that… at about ten years of age, I took over one end of one of mom’s rockery. I was given complete control over selecting and taking care of the flowers in this section.
Each summer, I became immersed in gardening with the start of our road side vegetable stand in 1960. At first we sold extra produce from Mom’s garden but soon my brother Ray and I got serious and started DON-O-RAY Vegetables. It gave us spending money and eventually paid for my university years.
At age 14, I joined the Kelowna 4-H Garden Club and worked my way up to junior leader. I had a garden plot at the edge of the farm where I grew vegetables and exhibited them at fairs. I learned how to judge vegetables and in 1968 won the gold medal at the PNE agricultural Fair.
While at university, I joined the Kelowna Regatta Agricultural Fair Committee and for several years looked after the vegetable and fruit displays and competitions. My first teaching job was in Wells, BC (near Barkerville). Here the mountain climate put a damper on my gardening success, but I did manage a small garden area against the house. In Wells, it was not uncommon to have tulips blooming along the sidewalk next to two feet of snow.
Returning to Kelowna in 1978 I bought a house in a rocky area of Rutland. I spent the next ten years picking rocks but did manage to establish a large flower, vegetable and fruit tree garden. In 1988 we decided to build a house on part of the Rampone farm (across from the SPCA) with the goal to someday establish an educational farm. The land here, next to Mission Creek, was never cultivated. Instead, it grew wild grasses that was used for summering livestock. The soil was alkali based and very wet. We began by hauling in lots of rocks to build a driveway and foundation for our house. We dug drainage ditches and began cultivating the land. We hauled in many, many loads of wood chips and grass clippings, working them into the soil. In a couple of years we began plant fruit and hazelnuts trees, garlic, tomatoes, peppers and more. We planted a pumpkin patch and started the Far Corner Farm. We offered school groups a farm experience that featured scavenger hunts, pumpkin math, companion planting (the three sisters: beans, corn and squash), and composting and soil making. Two highlights for the students were digging potatoes and selecting a pumpkin. A fire pit and story circle in the pumpkin poatch was well received by the whole community.
After ten years, our five acre garden was doing well, but, due to health concerns, we were forced to leave the farm. We bought a house near Guisichan Village, ripped out all the lawns and started planting trees, shrubs and flowers. Tomatoes, garlic and basilico are now growing between the flowers. Salad greens are grown in wine barrels and are capped off with clear umbrellas. A small greenhouse was attached to our shop. It overwinters my geraniums and provides us with fresh lettuce and greens all winter. To me, gardening is a twelve month love. In winter, our numerous pots are filled with evergreen branches and lights giving us a wonderland to walk through on dull, winter days.
That’s the “Italian Gardener’s” life story in a nutshell. May your year be filled with fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables and may your family time be joyous!
I grew up surrounded by geraniums. Late each autumn my nonna and my mom would take geranium slips and place them in jars of water. Once rooted, they made their way to small pots where they would spend the remainder of the winter in our windowed porch. Colours or varieties were usually labelled after their source. PO red were from a slip taken from our old post office on Bernard Avenue, in Kelowna. BK were a two-toned variety taken from Burger King, of an undisclosed location. A swap with neighbours always gave new varieties a place in our gardens. One such geranium was labelled AB (American Beauty) by my mom. It was actually a geranium that my Nonna grew, and that I still propagate, at least 60 years later.
After visiting Italy in 2000 and in 2017, I can now attest to their wide spread culture in Italian gardens. Geraniums are low-water consumers, so they grow well in pots on balconies and in flower-boxes under windows. There are over 400 types of flowers that we refer to as ‘geraniums’. These ‘geraniums’ came to Europe, from South Africa, by Dutch traders during the early 18th century. Many people confused the new ‘geraniums’ with the wild geraniums (Cranesbill) that grew throughout Europe. These new geraniums belong to the genus Pelargonium, whereas the true, wild geranium belongs to the genus Geranium. The Cranesbill, wild geraniums, are year-round hardy in Kelowna, whereas the Pelargonium geraniums that are now prevalent in Italian homes need yearly propagation.
I no longer use the “rooting in water” method of propagation. Rather, I have a two pronged routine, both using sterilized potting soil. Just before the first frost, I begin by cutting down all the old foliage. I sort through these cuttings and remove a number of slips. A slip is a growth that joins the main stem, just above a leaf node. These are not cut, rather snapped off. Snapping them off at the leaf node, leaves the active rooting area attached. Cutting them off, eliminates this natural rooting area. I leave these slips exposed to air for several hours to a day, to allow them to callous over. The slips are then hosed down to eliminate any pests being brought indoors for the winter. They are placed in new or a sterilized potting mix and watered very sparingly. These new geranium plants are given away, swapped with neighbours or brought to our Garden Club plant sale next spring.
The second routine for me, is to dig out the main plant roots… these will be my new plants for next year. All dead or older stems are removed, leaving several of the younger stems for my new plant. To prevent insects from coming along, all soil is removed from the plants. Cutting back the roots and removing any of the older woody roots ensures my geraniums continue to stay young and thrive. The plants are then repotted in soil and kept watered only enough to keep them alive. I am fortunate to have a small greenhouse attached to my workshop, but this method also works in a room with grow lights or even in garages with little or no light that is kept just above freezing. By next spring I will have well established pots of geraniums ready to be placed outside and I will also have many new slip geraniums ready to go.
There are many traditions, and much folk lore associated with geraniums. A single potted geranium, presented to someone as a housewarming gift, represents well-wishes for happiness in life. Geraniums have healing properties and reduce stress, so they are often associated with good health. Geraniums are also the birth flower for the astrological sign of Scorpio… perhaps that is why this Scorpio has such a fondness for these beautiful flowers.
Most lovely things by Annie Diamond, July 23, 2014
Facts about geraniums that gardeners should know, by Southern Living editors, April 11, 2022
The meaning of a red geranium by Danielle Smyth, April 29, 2021
Geranium flower meaning by Sara Trimble, May 1, 2022
Geranium ‘Patricia’ (Cranesbill) from Gardenia Creating Gardens
‘Know where your food comes from’ is a common phrase these days. Many Italian gardeners know exactly this, because many of them still grow the exact fruit and vegetables their grandparents, friends or neighbours grew. Last October, in this column, I wrote about seed saving and the Italian gardener. Let me expand on this.
Seed saving and plant propagation were activities that were incorporated into our daily lives. If one were eating a particularly tasty peach, the stone would be placed into an out of the way spot, tended to and eventually moved or given away to a friend. A similar story when one would see a neighbour's great looking tomatoes… ask for some seeds for your next year’s garden.
In the early years, on our family farm, seed saving played an important role for several crops. Pimento peppers were the most important pepper crop for our Italian families. Every year we would plant a dozen or so Pimento Pepper plants away from any other peppers (to avoid cross pollination). These peppers were allowed to come to full maturity before they were picked and the seeds saved. Similarly, the best garlic heads were not sold, but saved to plant again the next fall. In our home garden we had a Romano bean that we particularly enjoyed. It was given to us by the Mattioda family and so, was thusly named. The same for an Italian lettuce that was allowed to grow under our Hazelnut trees… it gave us a lettuce that was mixed with dandelion greens to give us a taste of early spring. Potatoes followed a similar pattern… save a few, cut them up and plant them in the spring and the cycle continued. Many farming families regularly saved grain for their next year’s crop. Today, through hybridization and genetic modifications, much of this is not possible.
Seed Saving is a relatively simple procedure. This from an article ‘Saving seeds for the future’: (https://italoamericano.org/saving-seeds/) “Begin your seed bank by placing well dried seeds in little plastic, sealable bags. With wet seeds such as tomatoes and squash, wash them first; then dry them on sheets of newspaper for two weeks. Place the seeds in little airtight, plastic sealable-packets. Be sure to label them with an indelible marker. Or, you can use tiny plastic or glass jars to hold the seeds. I use both plastic packets and tiny jars. Now, place the jars in a tupper-ware sealable container. The seed packets could also be placed in a large plastic ziplock bag. The main concern is to keep the seeds dry (think Svalbard). Your refrigerator temperature will hold the seeds at about 35F which is sufficient to save the seeds for a long time, far beyond the following year when you will want to plant them. I have seeds from 15-20 years ago, and many are still viable.”
I harvest far too many seed heads for practical purposes. But, I have turned this in to an advantage. During October, I turn this collection into small bouquets that I bring to the cemetery on All Souls Day on November 2.
Plant propagation also played an important role in our family. Budding and grafting were common practices with some of my great aunts and uncles. ‘Fruit salad trees’, that are quite common these days, were regular features for years in some Italian gardens. The best fruits were combined on one tree. All of the peach and apricot trees in our garden were from neighbours or relatives’ seedlings that they had saved. Geraniums have always been part of our family gardens. Each autumn, cuttings have been taken, cared for during the winter and replanted in the spring. My American Beauty coloured geranium is still the original from my Nonna. So, as well as some possible cost saving, some of my practices I continue today are intrinsic and bring many fond memories.
SAVING SEEDS FOR THE FUTURE May 22, 2013
Seed Saving Workshop - Italian Cultural Centre
Our Nonna told us that, in Italy, corn (il mais) was ground up and used to make polenta. Corn on the cob was animal feed. She thought it funny that we would enjoy it right off the cob.
Corn is not a traditional Italian vegetable. With the exception of Polenta, which is ground cornmeal, corn, as we know it, was fed to the animals. Corn arrived in Europe, after Columbus’ first visit to the Western Hemisphere. Grinding corn meal was similar to the grinding procedures Italians were already using with chickpeas, chestnuts, millet, barley and other grains for their porridges. Polenta remained a staple of the poor, primarily in the north, right into the early years of the 20th century. In Italy, polenta is often eaten family-style from a large platter or wooden board, allowing guests to serve themselves at the table.
Corn, (Zea mays) is also known as Indian corn or maize and it belongs to the grass family (Poaceae) It was domesticated in the Americas and is now on of the most widely spread of the world’s food crops. Corn is used as human food, animal fodder, biofuel and as an industrial raw material.
As a food source it is a favourite of summer time cookouts. Movie nights and parties see a wide use of popped corn. Corn is also diced and ground into flour which is turned into tortilla, chips and crackers. Today’s corn has been bred to be super sweet with the sweetness lasting for up to a week. This has not always been so. When we first started the DON-O-RAY Vegetable Stand (1960) we had a customer who trained us all about corn. His theory, which I believe to be true, was that after six hours the sugar content in corn begins to turn to starch. He insisted on knowing exactly when the corn was picked. Thus, we made it a habit to pick our corn at first light, when the dew was still on the plants. Even if we had sold all the corn picked that morning, we would not pick any more that day. On the few occasions there was left over corn, it was fed to the chickens. Corn soon became our best seller. New varieties, plus the use of cold storage, has made the handling and selling of corn much easier. But, the principal is still the same… when it comes to corn you can not beet ‘from the field freshness’.
For most of my life, I have followed the family method of corn preparation. The corn was husked and then boiled… but only for a few minutes. Any longer made it tough. Over the years I have tried many other methods… soaking the corn while still in the husk, roasting and grilling. They were either very time consuming or very messy. Now I take two cobs, just as they came from the field, and pop it in the microwave for six minutes. Take it out, cut off the big end and squeeze the corn out… it pops out squeeky clean… no husk and no silk hairs. In the husk it will stay hot for an hour or more and makes it suitable to throw into the picnic basket and head to the beach.
Oh, Nonna did learn to enjoy the tender, sweet, corn that we grew on our farm.
Sources: Polenta: All you Need to Know About the Comfort Food of Northern Italy by Francine Segan February 1, 2022
Jovina Cooks: If Corn Were an Italian Vegetable, May 29, 2012
By The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Aug 22, 2022
Corn by Stephanie Watson, August 14, 2020
I am a cherry fanatic!
Once local strawberries are on the decline, my attention is drawn to cherries. And what better place than the Okanagan to grow, harvest, eat and enjoy them. With the development of late ripening cherries the Okanagan gives us a supply of fresh cherries from June to September. I not only consume far too many fresh cherries, but also manage to fill my freezer with pitted cherries ready for my winter consumption. My version of cherry jam is simply minced cherries with absolutely nothing added to it. This ‘jam’ will be thrown in the freezer where it will be ready to use in baking or top my breakfast toast or dessert ice cream.
Cherries originated in the Black and Caspian Sea areas. They were domesticated before recorded history. Cherries derive their name from the Turkish town of Cerasus. Turkey remains the largest cherry producing area in the world. In the “History of Plants”, the early botanist, Theophrastus, write that cherries had been known to the Greeks as early as the 3rd century BC. The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, suggests that cherries were brought to Italy around 74 BC. They migrated to the Americas with the early 1600 settlers. In 1847, Henderson Lewelling brought nursery stock from Iowa to Oregon. These became the first cherry trees planted in the Pacific Northwest.
Sweet cherries, Prunus avium, and sour cherries, Prunus cerasus, are the two main species of cultivated cherries. They are related to plums and more distantly to peaches and nectarines. Prunus Virginiana, the chokecherry, grows in the wild throughout the Okanagan. Along with Saskatoon berries, blueberries, strawberries, huckleberries, gooseberries, black berries, black currants, and raspberries, the chokecherry was an important part of the syilx culture. The Okanagan names, Cherry Creek and Cherryville, give credence to this. The first non-native cherry trees arrived in the Okanagan in 1892, when 500 trees were planted by Lord and Lady Aberdeen at their Coldstream Ranch in Vernon.
Since 1892, cherry production in the Okanagan has grown steadily. Most of the cherry orchards were individually owned and grown in fairly small operations. One such family operation was run by the Geen family. The Geens have grown and sold cherries for over 119 years. They started out with a little fruit stand and sending truck loads of cherries to Vancouver markets. In the 80s and 90s buyers from New York, San Francisco, Taipei, London and Paris began to recognize the quality of their cherries so an international business has evolved. This has resulted in the Geen family expanding their operation into a world class operation that includes on site state of the art sorting and packaging facility that is tied into an efficient transportation network that ensures their cherries quickly reach world markets. The Geen’s ‘Jealous Fruits’ operation currently has 1500 acres growing on 25 farms from Kelowna to Kamloops and employs 1200 people. Their local sales are managed by cousin Domenic.
The northern location and high altitudes of some of the Okanagan farms, as well as the development of new varieties by the Summerland Research Station, has resulted in cherries being available long after most of the world has finished their production. As a child, I recall cherry season begin in early June and would typically last two weeks. Now I am in cherry heaven until the end of August. New later varieties available include Satin, Sweetheart, Stacatto, Soverign, Sentennial, Suite Note and Skeena.
For centuries, the area around Vicenza, Italy has been famous for its cherries. Every year festivals and events are organized to celebrate the ‘Ciliege’. One such event is La Notte Rossa, which marks the opening night of the Marostica two-week cherry festival. It is an evening of entertainment and music where shops stay open until very late and get in the spirit by dressing their window displays in all things cherry. Last year Guinness World Records witnessed a monster cherry, the heaviest cherry ever recorded. A ‘Carmen’ cherry was harvested by brothers Giuseppe and Alberto Rosso of Cascina Canape, in the Piemonte region. It weighed in at 33 grams (1.16 ounces) and had a circumference of 5 inches… it was as large as an apricot.
Topping off my love of cherries is a penchant for Bacio flavoured (hazelnut and chocolate) gelatto. I often treat myself, and you can too, to both fresh cherries and gelatto, all in one stop, at Sun City Cherries on Lakeshore Road, Kelowna.
California Cherries: 2022
Every Cherry Tree has a story: October 05 2021
Cherry Facts and Information: 2022
Cherry Festivals in Italy - Where and When October 27, 2021
Meet the Italian brothers who grew the world’s biggest cherry July 15, 2021 https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/largest-cherry
Cherish the Cherry, The Nibble February, 2009
The History of Okanagan Cherries June 29, 2022
The finest cherries since 1903
Is there any one fruit synonymous with the start of summer as the strawberry? Fresh off the plant, on cereal, topping a cake or served with ice cream, these fruits are at the top of my early summer enjoyment list.
The strawberry plant is a member of the Rosaceae family (genus Fragaria). The strawberry is actually not a true fruit, as the seeds are located on its outside. The name Strawberry is of uncertain origin but probably comes from “strewn berry” which is an early description of a strawberry plant with its runners strewn about the ground.
History reports vary on its origin, but many believe it was first found in Rome in 234 BC. It was commonly used for medicinal purposes. The bright red colour and heart shape form of the strawberry has led to many mythological stories. One such myth is that Venus wept tears for the loss of Adonis and her heart shaped tears, mixed with his blood and dropped to the ground. As this fluid seeped into the ground, strawberries grew in their place. Fragole have maintained a steady presence in Italy ever since being written about by Pisanelli in 1611.
Europeans found strawberries growing in the Americas in 1588. These strawberries were superior to European varieties in size, flavour and beauty. During the 1700s many new varieties were developed in North America by crossing of American and European varieties. While California produces the majority of the strawberries consumed in North America, many people prefer the sweet delicate taste of the smaller locally produced varieties. Italian growers have developed several new varieties that are closer to the wild strawberries than the large, white-cored, hollowed American varieties.
Fragole are grown in both the North and South of Italy and imported to the rest of Europe. The Lazio and Emilia-Romagna areas are blessed with fragolini di bosco (strawberries of the wood). These tiny, wild berries are very fragrant and delicious. They are honoured each year in Nemi with a two month harvest festival. In the Basilicata area, a new variety was developed in 2013. It is grown following strict guidelines and is marketed as ‘Candonga Fragola Top Quality’.
Strawberries are relatively simple to grow. In a small patch they will can produce for many years. In hanging planters they can provide a dramatic touch on the patio. They enjoy a slightly acidic soil and a full sun location. While warm sunny days produce the sweetest berries, they are a cool season crop that do not fare well with 30+degree temperatures. Keeping water off the leaves will yield a firmer fleshed berry that will keep longer after being picked. A layer of mulch (straw?) preserves moisture and keeps the berries clean. When berry production ends for the year, a harsh shearing of the plant tops allows the plants to rejuvenate quite nicely.
About Fragole (Garrubo Guide)
Best time to visit Italy: Strawberry Season April 1, 2021
Fresh Plaza: A new aromatic strawberry variety in Italy
Italian Traditions: May is the month of strawberries by Marco Fogliazza
Italian Sons and Daughters of America: Italian Strawberry and Pastry Cream Tart by Francesca Montillo
The word pumpkin conjures up fields of orange, jack o’ lanterns and Halloween. Mention squash and one thinks of a winter food. In reality, the Cucurbita family of plants is home to pumpkins, squash, zucchini, luffas, gourds, watermelons, cucumbers and more. This is a large family of plants that can provide us food all year. Zucchini and cucumbers are enjoyed in early summer, water melons, honey-do melons and cantaloupe in late summer, and pumpkins in the fall. Many varieties of squash are easily stored and are make a versatile food source for the fall and spring.
La zucca did not originate in Italy. Many countries claim this title including India and Mexico. In early Roman times the philosopher Pliny called them “a cure-all, comfort for every problem”. During the Middle Ages they became popular in soups and as a meat substitute during Lent. In the Este court of Ferrara they made a pasta with pumpkin filling called cappellacci. It remains a popular dish to this day.
Roman and medieval squashes were rather different from the varieties one finds in Italy today. Christopher Columbus brought the large, sweet Cucurbita Maxima and Moschata back with him to Italy. Squashes were even more popular with the poor because they were easy to grow and versatile to use. One can make use of every part of a squash, including the seeds. They are easily turned into soups, pasta and risottos.
The fruit is most often used as a food source, but the usefulness of the zucca does not end there. Gourds have a very hard shell and can be hollowed out and used as containers. Zucca flowers are now considered a delicacy but their early use in Italy was that of “cucina povera”, a peasant food. They can be used in salads, or more commonly they are made into fried fritters. A traditional Roman way of preparation is stuffed with cheese and anchovies, battered then fried.
Unlike some other foods brought back from the Americas, squash did not become as widespread as tomatoes and potatoes. Although gourds or their flowers crop up as an ingredient in dishes throughout Italy, their use was, and remains limited to some specific areas. In the North, along the Po river the soil is particularly suited to growing pumpkin and squash. The zucca became a staple in the area, particularly in the regions of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia. Here squash becomes the star of gnocchi and risotto.
Some parts of Southern Italy, Campania, Puglia and Sicily, also have a rich squash growing and eating tradition to rival with the North. Across the length of Italy, pumpkin seeds are toasted, salted and eaten as a snack, a recipe that has remained virtually the same since Roman times.
Just make sure don’t call anyone a pumpkin while you are in Italy. Far from being an endearment, "zucca" (but also zuccone, big pumpkin, or testa di zucca, pumpkin head) is slang for stupid.
As May rolled around my thoughts turned to planting tomatoes. As usual, I seeded my tomato plants in my greenhouse in March, and introuduced them to my coldframe in April. On March 2, I awoke to the perfect planting day. It was a warm, overcast day with night temperatures predicted to be about 8 degrees. I jumped at the chance to get my tomato plants into the ground.
In my mind, tomatoes, basilico and mozarella cheese are the perfect trifecta and reminiscent of the colours on Italian flag. But how did the tomato become such a strong part of Italian culture? It is not indigenous to Italy, or Europe for that matter. The tomato was first "discovered" by the Spanish Conquistadors while exploring and then conquering the Americas. The odd thing is that the tomato became popular in Europe long before it came to be used in North America. Colonial Americans thought of the tomato as a poisonous plant, after all, it's a close cousin or Nightshade, a well know toxic vine. Columbus and other explorers introduced the tomato to Europe in the 1500s.
The first time the pomi d'oro is mentioned by name in Italy was in 1548 in Tuscany. Italians learned to fry tomatoes up with eggplant, squash and onions, and used the dish as a condiment on bread and with meats. The cuisine of Southern Italian peasants, who often lacked meats and other proteins on a regular basis, developed into a mostly vegetarian diet in which tomatoes and olive oil, spices and vegetables were and eaten with bread, rice or polenta.
There is a strong competition for bragging rights on the best tomato. For many, the San Marzano is at the top of the list. Last year’s heat wave, and the resuting poor set of tomato blossoms, may have some people convinced this may not be so.
The San Marzano region became synonomous for the go-to canning tomato over 120 years ago, and is still the primary tomato used in canned tomatoes--and even for the production of sun dried tomatoes. The reason for it's success is not because it's the best tasting tomato... it's simply because it was developed and hybridized from three other varieties which made it withstand mechanical harvesting techniques put in place in the late 1800s to satisfy the needs of the growing canning industry.
Cultivating and processing tomatoes is possible in many areas in Italy, but three regions account for almost 90% of production: Puglia, with more than 50%; Emilia-Romagna, with 30% and Campania, with about 8%.
Inside a mature green tomato, two growth hormones change and cause the production of ethylene gas, which in turn turns it into a red shade. Because of this process, tomatoes are one of the only vegetables, or fruits that can be picked before they’re completely ripe. There are a multitude of ways to prepare tomatoes: from dried to roasted, to stewed, canned or even frozen; as many ways as there are tomato varieties! Sun drying tomatoes and storing them in olive oil is also a proven way to preserve large stores of tomatoes.
Perhaps the most exciting time for an Italian tomato connoisseur is the fall harvest and the preparation of the winter’s supply of tomato sauce. Many people now make this ritual a family affair, with an aura of festivity, food and wine. Although I still make my own tomato sauce, I only gow a dozen or so plants… just enough to give me a summer and fall supply. I rely on our local produce stands to supply my winter preserves.
Italian Feelings, food and taste Blog, Oct 2, 2017
How the Tomato Became Part of Italian Culture, May 3, 2016
Growing up on our family farm, peperoni were a big part of our lives. My parents grew thousnads of pepper plants each year to ship to Italian families throughout British Columbia and Alberta. They were among a dozen families in the Central Okanagan that had, during the 40s and 50s, established their own market. The peppers were ordered by mail and shipped out by rail. Whether hot, mild or sweet, thousands of pounds of peppers were harvested each year.
Like the tomato, peppers are botanical fruits, but culinary vegetables, that are native to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. Pepper seeds were imported to Spain in 1493 and then spread through Europe and Asia. The name “pepper” was bestowed by Europeans when Christopher Columbus brought the plant back to Europe. At that time, black pepper (peppercorns), from the unrelated plant “Piper nigrum,” originating from India, was a highly prized condiment. The name “pepper” was applied in Europe to all known spices with a hot and pungent taste. It was later applied to these fruits as well. In American English, hot peppers are referred to as chilis, in British English as chillis and in Spanish as chiles.
Sweet peppers, or "Bell Peppers”, go back at least to the late 1600's where the "pirate" and ship's surgeon Lionel Wafer wrote about them in the book "A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America” in the Caribean. Like their close relatives, chili peppers, bell peppers are sometimes dried and powdered. In that case, they are referred to as paprika. China is the world's largest producer of bell and chili peppers, followed by Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, and the United States.
The most sought after peppers by Italian famiies is the Pimento (also spelled pimiento). It is the sweetest pepper, with the thickest flesh making it the favourable pepper for roasting and canning. Fresh pimento peppers are hard to find in grocery stores but canned or bottled ones can be found in just about every grocery store. They are also commonly used as a stuffing in green olives or in pimento loaf deli meat.
Peppers are low in calories and exceptionally rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants, making them an excellent addition to a healthy diet. Preferred growing conditions for peppers include warm, moist soil in a temperature range of 21 to 29 °C (70 to 84 °F)
Eggplants, or melanzane, were grown in abundance on our farm. Each winter, my parents received mail orders for hundreds of pounds of these beauties from Italian families throughout British Columbia and Alberta. As the melanzane were harvested, they were packed in used cardboard boxes, in which Calona Wines had received their glass wine jugs. Each morning, the packed boxes were brought to the train station for delivery to families, who would preserve the eggplants for their winter use. There, they would be fried, roasted or salted and pickled.
Melananze are warm weather lovers, and prefer rich, but well drained soil. They are subject to wilt and other moisture loving diseases, so do best when one can avoid watering their leaves.
In locations, including Burma, India, Northern Thailand, and Southern China, melanzane plants are native species that have been cooked and consumed for centuries. The wild melanzane plants were domesticated and cultivated, beginning in ancient times. A 300 BC Sanskrit document made note of the plant and discussed the fruit in positive terms. In China, evidence of melanzane cultivation was found in documents from the Western Jin Dynasty, written as early as the 3rd century. The eggplant reached Southern Italy by the 9th century. Arabs brought the fruits along with them as they expanded their territory into the region.
Melanzane was consumed by fearless foodies in the Calabrian and Sicilian regions of Italy, although some people were initially wary of the funny egg-shaped produce. In ancient Roman gardens, white-colored melanzane species may have been cultivated as purely ornamental plants.
The name melanzane is derived from the name mala insana , meaning mad apple. This Renaissance-era term for the plant, sprung from the belief that the fruit made people angry and full of melancholy.
The melanzane plant has many names: aubergine (from the French), brinjal (South African and South Asian), guinea squash (South American) and melongene, the word used in the Caribbean.
In early cultures, eggplant was considered a medicinal ingredient as well as a food source. All parts of the plants, including the roots, were used to treat ailments. Some illnesses thought to be treated with melanzane include: asthma, dental issues, diabetes and intestinal upset.
Other ancient medical practitioners believed the eggplant caused more problems than it cured. Everything from pimples to epilepsy was blamed on the melanzane.
It was once thought that salting and soaking removed risks from the plant. Many traditional Italian chefs continue to salt and soak eggplant before cooking, but the steps are not necessary to enjoy the healthy fruit.
The earliest detailed reference “Eggplant Parmesan” occurred in an 18th century cookbook. The dish was made with butter, cream sauce, cinnamon, and other spices and then covered with Parmesan cheese. The dish included tomatoes, after their arrival in the New World, around the same time period.
“A short history of Melanzane, or eggplant” from Picano’s Italian Grille (Michigan) July 25, 2018
14 Gorgeous Eggplant Varieties from Four Root Farm (Connecticut)
Life-long Gardener Don Rampone shares his tips and advice for gardening