When I think of lemons, I think of Italy: my favourite country to travel to, with a cuisine that celebrates these beautiful citrus fruit in every way. There is a wonderful book, written by Helena Attlee – The Land Where Lemons Grow – an exploration of both Italy and its extraordinary production of citrus fruit, which I read a few years ago. I’ve since re-read it several times, to squeeze out every last word of this evocative, informative odyssey into my two great passions: Italy and lemons.
I first encountered real Italian lemons as a child when I visited family friends in Northern Italy one summer. All along the terrace, which stretched the length of the front of the house, were huge terracotta pots holding lemon trees, covered in deep green leaves and hanging with bright yellow fruit. I had seen a million lemons in fruit bowls before but I had never seen a lemon growing from a tree. When I picked one, I saw the skin was thick and covered in deep pores, unlike the smooth wax-dipped British imports. Just holding the fruit in my hands made the citrus oils seep out onto my skin, perfuming them with a fragrance of zest, sunshine and freshness.
Italians have known these pleasures for thousands of years and although we often associate citrus growing with southern areas like the Amalfi coast, I later learnt in Attlee’s book that historically a thriving business also had operated close to where I was, around Lake Garda. Here the cooler climates produced lemons with an acidity which appealed to the Northern European market. The reason the lemons I saw were growing in pots, was not just a way to decorate the terrace, it was so the trees could be moved, when the temperatures drop dramatically in the winter, into purpose built limonaia or insulated lemon houses.
Now is the perfect time to be picking nettles. They are young and tender and like any new season’s produce, at their freshest and best. Given that we spend most of our time avoiding contact with these stinging plants, it’s surprising to think what a pleasure they are to eat. So welcome their new growth and arm yourselves with gloves to go picking, because the reward is certainly worth it. Last week I ate a superb dish of nettle pappardelle at the River Cafe which inspired me to deviate from my usual nettle soup or ravioli recipes. (See my recipe for the Guardian for ravioli stuffed with nettles and ricotta ) The fun of this new method is getting the green colour and the flavour of the leaves into the pasta dough, rather than using the nettles as stuffing for ravioli or blended in a soup.
Fresh young nettles, stings still in tact
The end of a year is always a good time for a round-up, so here are some of my most memorable encounters and enjoyable moments of eating, cooking and discovering the best ingredients of 2014…
Sea urchins in Oulidia, Morocco – the cold temperature of the sea greatly improves the flavour
There’s been a bumper harvest of truffles this year. Italy’s unusually wet summer and warm autumn created the perfect conditions to send usually high prices tumbling. But they’re still not cheap even at £18 for 10grams, so what is it about these knobbly fungi that make us willing to pay such a high price?
The biggest truffle I’ve seen – this weighed about 300g
As the famous gastronome Brillat Savarin put it, white truffles are the “diamonds of the kitchen”. The exotic and mysterious fruiting bodies of a subterranean fungus, found in just a handful of places in Europe (although the best come from the Langhe area of Piedmont in Northern Italy) lie hidden in the soil, living symbiotically amongst the roots of oak, beech, poplar and hazel trees.
Things have been quietly getting on in the pumpkin patch. The big leaves have been hiding some steadily enlarging pumpkins and squashes. `I went away for a while and when I came back one of them had grown to gargantuan proportions. Perfect for Halloween but a bit overgrown for the pot. The Crown Prince and Onion squash varieties have grown a little slowly and are at the perfect size. The Turk’s Turbans looked so good, I just wanted to keep them as decoration with their toy shop shapes, colours and patterns.
Small hand, big pumpkin
Different varieties suit being cooked in different ways: the Crown Prince is perfect for soup – it can sometimes be a little floury so it suits having some moisture added; the Onion and Acorn squash are good for roasting, and the big old pumpkins, well, I think they’re best for the children at Halloween.