Anyone who has travelled in Italy will have experienced the delicious food to be found in every ristorante. Here’s our practical guide to bringing those wonderful tastes to your own back garden...
Using fresh vegetables in season is the key to Italian cooking. What is more, there is a strong tradition of having one’s own kitchen garden and, although each region has its special dishes, there are some overall principles that make it quite possible for you to grow the basic ingredients and create your own ‘taste of Italy’.
A Basic Sauce
Ingredients for a great basic sauce are quite simple:
- 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1 kg fresh ripe plum tomatoes
- 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 4 tbsp fresh basil leaves
- 2 tsp sugar
- Salt to taste
Gently fry the garlic in the oil until it changes colour and then add the de-seeded, finely sliced tomatoes, sugar and salt. The tomatoes should be reduced down for at least 15 minutes, before adding the roughly chopped basil leaves.
A simple sauce like this can taste delicious served on good pasta topped with grated parmesan. As most Italians know, it’s more about the quality of the ingredients than the exact recipe – so home-grown is definitely best.
You can grow tomatoes in large pots, in grow-bags, in tubs on the patio or directly in the soil. Although often raised in greenhouses they can be successfully grown outside in mild, sheltered spots. You will need good light conditions if you are to grow sturdy plants.
The seeds can be started off in a greenhouse or on a sunny windowsill. Sow the seed thinly in trays filled with moist compost, then cover each tray with plastic or glass and stand it in a warm place. Spray every day with a fine mist to avoid saturating the compost or washing the seeds away. After seven to ten days, the seedlings will emerge. Transplant them into individual 8 cm pots as soon as the seedlings are big enough to handle, holding them by their leaves not stalks.
When the first flowers open, harden (acclimatise) them for a few days by taking them outside by day and back in at night. They will then be ready to be planted out. In the greenhouse, this can be any time in the spring, but wait until the risk of frost is over before planting outdoor varieties. Support your plants with a stout cane using string loosely fastened round the stem
Pinch out side shoots, so the plant grows strongly and when six or seven trusses (branches) have set fruit, remove the growing point at the top of the plant, to prevent it from getting too leggy (see our article on supporting and pruning tomatoes for details).
Garlic can be cultivated in a pot or window box or in the open in a sunny position. You can grow it from cloves bought from the greengrocer or from specialist growers who can supply varieties suitable for your climate.
Unusually, garlic benefits from a good cold period early on so plant the cloves in late autumn or early spring, with 15cm between each one. Once the weather warms up, you will need to keep the area weed-free to allow the plants to develop.
In summer, the leaves will turn yellow and go limp. This indicates it is time to harvest your crop. The plants then need to be treated like onions and dried in the sun or hung up in a dry shed until needed.
Basil is a tender herb that grows well in pots, both indoors and outside. Once you are confident at growing basil plants, you will find there are many different varieties to try.
Sow the seed indoors in trays filled with moist compost, then cover each tray with plastic or glass, keeping it at a temperature of at least 16°C. Spray every day with a fine mist to avoid saturating the compost or washing the seeds away. The seeds germinate slowly. Once the seedlings are big enough, they can be carefully transplanted into individual pots. Do not attempt to grow basil outside until all danger of frost is over.
Tip: If you pinch out the top growth of your basil plant, you will get a better-shaped, bushier specimen.
More Vital Herbs for Italian Cooking
Grow flat-leafed parsley, thyme, marjoram and rosemary in pots by your door: just brushing past them will conjure up images of the Mediterranean and they will be easily accessible when cooking.
You can also grow the ingredients you might find in an insalata mista (mixed salad): such as carrots, rocket, sweetcorn, fennel bulbs and the huge range of lettuce varieties (such as ‘Lollo Rosso’). Once you experience freshly cut lettuce leaves, supermarket bagged salad seems very poor in comparison.
Fennel thrives in the warm Mediterranean climate, but it is also possible to grow it in cooler regions. The plant needs to be kept well watered and the soil drawn up around the stem to blanch the bulbous part of the fennel base. It is very hard to grow fennel in heavy clay soil.
Italians often eat vegetables as a side dish, or as a course on their own (il contorno), combining such ingredients as green beans and tomatoes; aubergines with onion and celery; or a grilled pepper salad with olives and capers. Dressing with good quality olive oil and a little seasoning can enhance the fresh flavours.
Other widely used vegetables in Italian cooking include peas, borlotti and other beans, courgettes (zucchini), chards and greens. All are easy to grow at home and you will find far more interesting varieties available from seed packets than are stocked in supermarkets.
Plant a peach tree against a sunny wall. To produce fruit in cooler climates, you need a frost-free spring and a sunny summer – but it is worth a try if you have the space and a location with the right orientation. Alternatively, you might want to try growing a fig tree or a potted lemon tree in a conservatory..
Creating the Right Climate
Of course, many Italian ingredients such as peppers and aubergines require good sun and a long growing season so you may need to use fleece to protect against frosts, or grow your fruit and vegetables under cloches or in a greenhouse. (See our Growing Tender Plants Outside guide).
Enjoy Good Food with Friends
Finally, consider investing in an Italian cookbook and some bottles of Italian wine and, when you are ready to harvest your crop, invite your friends to dinner. You may not be able to guarantee Mediterranean-style sunshine, but they’re sure to be impressed when you conjure up a mouth-watering meal, using the ingredients from your own Italian kitchen garden. Buon appetito!