One of the many delights of visiting Italy any time of year is enjoying fresh seasonal produce. Italians often shop the same day for fruits and vegetables to cook with, with their staples including olives, grapes, sugar beets, corn, tomatoes and citrus. Here we'll explore five wonders of the Italian table, some of which may be new to you.
Well-known among locals but unusual to visitors is the loquat fruit or nespole. Orange yellow in appearance, its juicy flesh has a subtle hint of citrus. Its stones are actually used to make a bitter and sweet type of liqueur called Nespolino. This fruit begins to blossom around April and continue well into the rest of spring and summer. The loquat was introduced to Italy in the18th century and became popular throughout the country and is grown in many areas. Many families have loquat trees in their backyards.
The fig is one of the most popular fruits in Italy and is grown widely, especially in southern Italy where it does not have to be protected from frost. If you have not tried fresh figs, and your only reference point is the dried figs eaten during the holidays, you'll be surprised by the difference. Figs are quite versatile also, because they go well with sweet foods such as cakes, and savory foods such as cheese. Figs are commonly used in salads, cookies, or even added to wine or cheese sauces for a little extra kick.
Unlike loquats, Americans have already discovered radicchio. It's actually a type of chicory found in various regions of Italy. It contains either red or green leaves; sometimes a combination of both. Radicchio is ideal as a complement to salads when a little bitterness or spice is needed. The leaves are generally tightly bound together similar to Romaine. Sometimes, the leaves are even grilled or toasted and added to salads as a side for a main meal.
4. Broccoli Rabe
Broccoli rabe is known by different names depending upon where you are in Italy. It doesn't come formed with a short stem and large head, but has a long, thin stem that branches out into a leaf. The leaves have a bitter taste making them a great side dish for many Italian dishes. Its pungent taste goes well with sausages, pork ribs, pasta, beans and salty cheeses and broccoli rabe is often sautéed with garlic, Parmesan cheese or chili pepper. And, supposedly, it wards off Alzheimer's disease.
5. Roman Cauliflower
This is a popular vegetable to be added to a spicy tomato sauce, combining spicy, sweet and savory tastes all in one. It can also be used on its own as the main ingredient in a dish. Simmer the cauliflower heads with a spicy Italian sauce topped off with pine nuts. Alternatively, eat them on their own with some fresh lemon on the side and a splash of olive oil on the heads for extra flavor.
We hope this has piqued your curiosity for trying fruits and vegetables in Italy. The Italians are such good cooks, you may find yourself enjoying the fresher versions of vegetables, and in particular those you thought you didn't like.
A TIP: Italians don't like other people handling their produce. In a produce market, the owner will bag everything for you. In a supermarket, you are expected to wear gloves when picking up the fruit.