Under the Tuscan Sun

zucchiniMy "zucchini" moment occurred in Italy, not in a romantic "Tuscan villa" as the travel cliché terms the experience we now all equate with that region, but in the low-ceilinged kitchen of a little summer house deep in the Tuscan hills. We were visiting a friend we had met in New Zealand many years before. Giovanni's car had, miraculously, broken down outside our house one very wet and muddy Easter just as we were digging by hand, through sodden clay, a hole for our septic tank. There were no garages open, of course, nor any accommodation in the village, so Giovanni stayed with us for several days. His fabulous company would have been compensation enough for the inconvenience of making up a bed for him in our two-roomed fishing cottage amidst all the chaos of a new baby and strings of drying nappies, but he also endeared himself by producing each evening, just as we were scraping the mud from or gumboots, a bottle of exquisite red Italian wine from one of the several crates in the boot of his broken-down Citron. Giovanni was, every inch, the romantic Italian so I suppose it was no wonder that he was also a gastronomic whizz in kitchen.

His Tuscan summerhouse was the Italian equivalent of the NZ "bloke's shed", a miniature cottage stuffed with an odd assortment of mismatched crockery, dusty bottles of vino and aperitifs, and legs of ham drying in a cool, dark cellar at the back of the building. Outside, in dazzling sunshine, a vegetable garden nestled into a low hill, backed by fruit trees with branches sagging under the weight of ripening peaches. Giovanni was cooking lunch for us and it began with battered zucchini blossom shallow-fried in olive oil pressed from the fruit of his own trees. The flowers were so crisp that the crunch was audible as we bit into them. I'm the first to say that anything fried in top-quality olive oil is delicious, but eating these golden fritters was also like devouring a subtle perfume. This exquisite entre was followed by zucchini presented in the simplest possible way but, because the fruit was literally minutes away from having been harvested, the flavour was divine. Chunks of garlic went into the pan first, followed by tomatoes still warm from the sun, chopped in, skins and all. Lastly went the sliced zucchini, ground black pepper and salt. The olive oil melded the flavours and, as we sat outside under a canopy of grape leaves to devour the meal, I thought that zucchini should never be eaten any other way.

Of course, this versatile summertime vegetable can be used in so many dishes – Greek zucchini and potato stew, grated into a batter of four and free-range eggs as fritters, stuffed and baked, and as a main ingredient in quiches. And the best part of all is that zucchini are not difficult to grow. Now available in green, variegated, yellow and green ball-shaped varieties, they require only fertile ground enriched with compost and animal manure, full sunshine, and a regular watering (I also top mine up with liquid manure every couple of weeks). But there is one other essential when it comes to growing this delicious vegetable. Harvest the very first zucchini while they are still just 5 or 6 centimetres long. Managing the plant in this way encourages it to continuing setting fruit. And keep harvesting. If later zucchini are not picked regularly while the fruit is still no longer than your hand, the plants are inclined to stop producing, and to concentrate on making marrows (an infinitely less attracted proposition) instead. So if you plan to be away from home for a period of more than two or three days, invite the neighbours in to help themselves!

Zucchini experience very few health problems – the most common being a silvery papering of the leaves caused by mildew. This can be best avoided by ensuring adequate but not over watering. If the leaves do succumb, snip them off (do not compost) and thin out the leaves of the plant to allow for greater ventilation. Watch out, also, for slugs and snails that will attack the young, tender fruit as it develops.

This summer, as I go about harvesting and cooking my zucchini, my mind drifts pleasurably back to that little summerhouse in Tuscany where, I know for certain, that zucchini are still featuring on the menu. What more can I say, but "Thank you, and bon appetito, Giovanni"!

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