Our correspondent Lucie Shelbourne reports from her garden in the Umbrian hills in Italy….
Just as May turns into June in central Italy, all the immaculately raked fields along the road to the town have stacks of white boxes skirting them, and tractors galore. It’s a hive of industry. In the boxes are tiny tobacco plants, which are systematically being planted in long lines. The sight of the maize plants in late summer before they are harvested, standing resplendent in their florentine gold attire, is a feast for the eyes. The other common sight is, of course, the sunflowers – girasole (which basically means “turn to the sun”). I asked my husband Richard to drive me down to the field at the bottom of our valley after dark one summer so that I could pick one to paint. No easy task! Up close, I felt dwarfed by their huge faces, towering above me. From afar, you would never think they were so tall, and cutting into the stem, low down, was quite an effort as the thick wooden fibre had to be really robust to support such an enormous and heavy flower. Richard shone the headlights of the car into the field to help me see what I was doing. He said later that the escapade looked like a scene out of an alien movie. The scary bit for me, though, was being spotted by the local farmer on his way back from the Bar Frizzino in the village!
I have been watching my orto (kitchen garden) grow with great pleasure, although I wish I’d had room for more French beans – fagiolini. The strawberries we’ve already had two helpings from, although I’m sure that somebody is going up to my plot and picking them when I’m not looking! All the vegetables you buy in Italy, especially in the piazza markets, are so rich in flavour and the organic carrots put English supermarket ones positively in the chilly English shade, dare I say it. Foreigners shopping here always remark on the size of the bell peppers in Italy – i pepperoni. They are enormous and very tasty. I like to do a dish where I roast them in the oven until the edges are black and then drizzle over a mixture of capers, anchovies and garlic, all finely chopped with several glugs of extra virgin olive oil – my own, in fact.
But, in my kitchen garden here in Umbria, I have narrowed down the choice of vegetables I grow. Zucchini (courgette), pomodori (tomatoes), fagiolini (French beans), cipolle (onions), lettughe (lettuces) and prezzemolo (parsley). Melon and melanzane (aubergine) I have tried, but the bought ones are better, I have to admit. If a bay leaf is required, I pluck one off the bay arch. They are very aromatic. In the autumn, I cut off a branch and posted it to my sister in England. She said her stews were dancing a gig afterwards!
After rushing about all week, I suddenly remember the garden! What’s growing? What have I been missing that I’ve been waiting all year round to see come into bloom? The roses!
I turn the corner and go through the bay arch and wow! A ‘Tuscan Superb’ in full bloom greets me. I bend down towards its magnificent rubescence to get another whiff of the heavy scent exuding from its dark red petals. I realise that the fabulous perfume is not coming from this showy specimen that’s pushing it’s presence upon me, but from a bush of tightly curled pink petals next to it. Whatever this powerfully strong fragrance is, I like it! This lovely pale pink variety, that nearly wooed me off my feet, is called ‘Fantin Latour’ after the French painter best known for his flower paintings.
The bush has thrived up against the wall of the house, where tiny insects annually scratch away at the flakey mortar binding its ancient stones together, making homes for themselves. I glance about at all the different flowers there are in the garden. I feel free. Gardens are places where humans can feel freer than in the highways and byways of ordinary life. Our Italian garden is a sanctuary. Its beauty is not just held within the boundaries of its actual setting. Richard always says that as a gardener, you can’t compete with Nature, as the views beyond are so stunning. Strolling down paths and through arches is an experience to truly savour. Right now the ‘Ginestra’ is coming into flower, throwing out a heady scent over the hills. The wild orchids that quietly sit in the long grass are a national treasure in this part of Umbria. One can easily become blasé, so I regularly pinch myself on the arm a few times to remind myself that this is a truly enviable existence; being in a beautiful garden and as I walk along its fine gravel paths, watching butterflies flit gently by me, I find myself absorbing the personality of its maker. I recognise it easily as I’m married to him!