Last month’s installment of this series was so successful, we decided to kick off the new month with a brand new list of what fruit and vegetables are in season in June in Italy.
Even though Italians have cooking and eating seasonal produce in their DNA, lately mass distribution and globalization have confused these annually, natural guidelines, making the calendar distinction in our shopping bag a little fuzzy.
Sorrel’s sharp, vinegary flavor – the Italian name acetosella derives from the Italian word aceto for ‘vinegar’ – can be an addition to soups, sauces, and to give some kick to spring salads, or cooked in butter with fish and egg dishes. Sorrel is best from mid March to September. It’s easy to grow from seeds in your garden too, or in a large pot.
Also known as “monk’s beards” these curiously meaty and slightly sour greens are used in Italian kitchens from March to early June. Chock with minerals like iron and other healthy nutrients, and for their spaghetti-like nature, agretti are a great solution for kids who normally don’t love vegetables. They can be steamed and drizzled with a thread of olive oil and lemon juice, but they’re also tasty sautéed with garlic, and topped with a fried egg.
Available until and including June, asparagus – with their very distinct, intense savory flavor – are considered one of the delicacies of the vegetable world. The very slender wild asparagus (asparagi selvatici) are the best in terms of flavor, but this variety is not cultivated, and can only be foraged in the fields and forest floor. Asparagus can be purple, green or white, depending on how much light they are exposed to. All types of asparagus are a potent diuretic and pack a nutritional punch, with few calories and high levels of vitamin A and C, potassium, iron and calcium.
Aubergine or eggplant are at peak season between May and September. Whether slender, speckled and striped, or bulbous, glossy, deep purple zeppelin-like, Melanzane are a staple in southern Italian cuisine. Eggplant’s mildly smoky flavor and flesh that’s spongy when raw but soft and meaty when cooked, lends itself to a large number of very popular Mediterranean dishes, like Eggplant Parmesan for example, in which the aubergine slices are fried and then layered with tomato sauce, cubed mozzarella and fresh basil, dusted with grated Parmigiano and then baked in the oven.
The sweet, strong aroma and flavor of basil is synonymous of Mediterranean. There are three main local types of basil that are at their best between June and September: sweet, with large, curly green leaves; Ligurian, with small leaves and a peppery undertones; and purple, whose dark leaves have a milder flavor. Basil lends itself to many recipes where it is not just an enhancer, but rather plays a starring role as an actual ingredient: pounded in a pestle and mortar (or blitzed in a food processor) with garlic, pine nuts, pecorino and olive oil to make pesto; torn fresh into tomato-based pasta sauces; combined with sliced mozzarella di bufala and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil for classic Caprese salad; beaten into softened butter, then melted over steaks, roast chicken, or crushed boiled new potatoes… the employments are endless.
Also known as fava beans, these healthy legumes adapt to many cooked preparations. Buy broad beans as fresh as possible between late April and September; pods should be firm and crisp. Avoid any that feel soft, with pockets of air inside. Fave should be podded and peeled (unless very small) because the skin is quite bitter. Popping the bright green raw beans with chunks of pecorino cheese (and a glass of table wine) is a typical meal ending at this time of year.
Different varieties of cabbage are available all year round. The cabbage, or brassica, family is huge, and includes everything from the familiar red, white or green varieties with heavy heads of tightly packed leaves, to cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts. Cabbage itself comes in many forms, heads compact or loose, and the leaves curly or plain. The round, crinkle-leafed Savoy cabbage is considered culinarily superior. Essential to good soups or a bollito misto (boiled meats and veggies), cabbage lends a nutty, rich flavor to all it comes in contact with.
Up to the Middle Ages, all carrots were purple! The orange variety was first developed in 16th-century Netherlands by patriotic growers who bred it in tribute to king William I of Orange. Available in Italy at its best between June and October, carrots are some of the most versatile root vegetables around, thanks to their sweet flavor, which means they can be used raw or cooked, in both sweet or savory dishes. Particularly tender and sweet, young, thin carrots are best purchased with their feathery greens still attached.
Finocchio’s typical bulb is delightful eaten raw, with a texture that is crisp and the flavor assertive and anisseedy; while when cooked, fennel bulbs taste sweeter and the texture is softer. Available May to December, the fronds of the fennel bulb are also a welcome aromatic addition to Sicilian pasta dishes and other Mediterranean preparations.
Part of the lily, or ‘alium’ family, of which onions are also a member, aglio (garlic) is one of the most indispensable ingredients around, and plays a pivotal role in Mediterranean cuisine. Dried and assembled in braids, garlic is available all year round, but fresh garlic appears in Italian markets between June and October. Bulbs are composed of many individual cloves enclosed in a thin papery white, mauve or purple skin. The flavor is fiery, pungent and crunchy when raw, as it cooks it becomes more mellow and creamy. Sauteéd in olive oil, garlic is used as a flavor punch in many recipes, sauces, stews and meat roasts. Rub a raw, peeled clove on toasted slices of homestyle bread and drizzle with cold-pressed olive oil with a dash of sea salt for the ultimate bruschetta experience.
Lettuce is available all year round in a vast number of types, either crisp or floppy, but the peak happens between May and September. It is mainly eaten raw in salads, though Italians add lettuce to soups or braise it as a side dish. Among the most commonly available lettuces in Italy during winter are curly endive (Frisée), Escarole endive, and Catalogna endive (in Rome called puntarelle). Springtime instead brings Romaine, Cappuccina (head lettuce) and Iceberg.
Mint is at its peak from May to September. Look for bright green, perky leaves that aren’t wilting. There are several types of mint, each with its own subtle difference in flavor and appearance. The most popular type is spearmint, with its pointy, serrated leaves and a familiar refreshing taste. Peppermint has longer, darker leaves and a stronger flavor and is popular in desserts and confectionary. In Italy, and Rome in particular, mentuccia (a wild-growing variety known as calamint, nepetella, or Emperor’s mint) is commonly added to braised artichokes, frittata or tripe.
Fresh peas are at their peak between May and November. As is the case with all types of legume, they are best eaten just-picked, either raw in salads or braised in butter with pancetta and shallots.
The appearance of new potatoes (patate novelle) on Italian market stalls in late April/beginning of May heralds the arrival of spring. New potatoes have thin skins and a crisp, waxy texture. They are small and oval shaped, and unlike their fully grown counterparts, they keep their shape once cooked and cut. Choose new potatoes that are firm, dry and blemish-free. Tip: unwashed potatoes last longer, as the dirt protects them from bruising and general deterioration.
Available March to September, ravanelli (radishes) are the root of a member of the mustard family. They have a peppery flavor and a crisp, crunchy texture. Among the most popular varieties are the small, cherry-sized variety which has red skin and white flesh. At the market, choose firm, unblemished radishes, and any greens still attached should look fresh and perky. The bigger the radish, the less crisp its texture, so avoid larger examples. I prefer them sliced in mixed salads, while my 9 year-old loves them smeared with butter and sprinkled with sea salt.
The sweet Romanesco cauliflower, with its distinctive fractal geometry florets, appears on Italian market stalls at the beginning of June and is in season until November. Cupped by green leaves (which are equally edible) Romanesco has a firm, waxy texture, and its pointed florets can be steamed or sautéed with garlic and olive oil, and make a great addition to pasta sauces, soups, sausage preparations and tasty side dishes.
The bitter, earthy flavor of spinaci is distinctive and particularly complements dairy products and eggs. Available between April and December, the milder, young leaves can be eaten raw in a salad, while the older ones are usually cooked (spinach has one of the shortest cooking times of all vegetables – two minutes max!). Watch out, since it also reduces dramatically in volume during cooking.
Taccole (Runner beans or Mange tout)
Spring flat beans locally called Taccole are legumes, stronger in flavor and coarser in texture than green beans, they are also much longer and are in season between May and August. Italians blanche taccole and then cook them with onions and tomato sauce until tender.
After a winter of eating roots, cruciferous greens and brassica, June finally welcomes His Highness the Tomato! A member of the nightshade family (along with aubergines, bell peppers and chilies), tomatoes are in fact a fruit, but their affinity for other savory ingredients means that they are usually classed as a vegetable. Tomatoes originated in western South America, crossed the Atlantic to Spain with the conquistadors in the 16th century, but only finally caught on in northern Europe in the 19th century. Today they’re one of the most important ingredients available, and are indispensable in Mediterranean cuisine. The skin, flesh and seeds are all edible (the latter are less easily digestible), but the green leaves are toxic, so should always be discarded. The number of tomato varieties run into the thousands, and they vary in size from the huge ‘cuore di bue’ (ox heart) to tiny ‘datterino’ cherry tomatoes. Most pomodori have a sweet, gently tangy flavor and are sensational both raw and cooked.
Zucchini are at their best from June until September. The best variety is the ribbed “romane” which when young and just-picked, come topped with a beautiful, edible flower. Stuff courgette blossoms with mozzarella or ricotta and a suspicion of oil-packed anchovy, dip in light batter and deep fry; or toss them in olive oil until just wilted, then stir through pasta. Zucchini flowers don’t last so buy and cook them on the same day. They go well with mild cheese like mozzarella or ricotta, crispy pancetta, pasta, as topping for pizza… the list goes on.
Apricots herald stone fruit season, and we couldn’t be happier! Available in Italy between June and August, albicocche are fragrant, with a soft, velvety skin that ranges from pale yellow to deep orange, tinged with a rosy blush and sometimes tiny sexy freckles. Inside there’s a large kernel that will fall out easily if the flesh is ripe. Apricots need a warm climate to thrive, but their nutrients and anti-oxidant powers remain intact even when the fruit is dried.
At their peak in mid-July, Italian markets begin selling tart cherries as early as June. One of the delights of the warmer months, cherries are much loved for their succulent texture, addictive flavor and gorgeous good looks. The juicy flesh can be sweet or sour, depending on which of the hundreds of varieties they are. Some of the best local ones are visciole, dark, sour and wild variety that is used in tarts, pies, crumbles and sauces, and employed along with ricotta in the Roman delight crostata di visciole.
Locally called nespole, loquats grow in clusters on evergreen trees between May and September. The loquat fruits are oval, 1-inch long, with a smooth or downy, orange skin. The succulent, tangy flesh is orange and sweet and contains 3-4 large, slippery seeds at the core. The thin skin can be peeled off easily if the fruit is ripe, and the flavor is a mixture of peach, citrus and mild mango. Tip: the uglier, more battered these fruits look, the better they taste!
Pomegranates have always been highly prized for their flavor, but their recent emergence as a highly nutritious superfood, packed with antioxidant vitamins, has made them even more popular. Pomegranates appear in Italian markets in November through June in their shiny orbs, blushed with red or yellow. Inside, scores of edible tiny white seeds are held in jewel-like ruby sacs of sweet, juicy flesh. The sacs themselves are packed tightly in a bitter, pale yellow pith, which is best discarded.
Available from June to September, raspberries have a wonderfully intense, sweet taste, and many consider them to be the finest flavored of all the ‘frutti di bosco’ berries. As raspberries are very delicate, try not to wash them (if organic – or better, self foraged in the wild – there’s nothing to wash away). Just pick off any bits of stalk or leaf and serve with cream or gelato. Use raspberries to also make jam, tarts, tiramisù or cheesecake. Raspberries can furthermore be cooked into coulis, sauces for game or to flavor white wine vinegar.
Available in Italy between January and July, technically rhubarb is a vegetable but its thick, fleshy and watermelon-colored stalks are treated as a fruit. Tart flavored, rhubarb should be cooked with plenty of sugar, and is perfect in pies with both ginger and strawberries. Note: Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid, which is poison, so should never be eaten; be sure to cut them off and discard!
Strawberries, among all other fruits, are the perfect example of how season and territory dramatically tilt the flavor scale. Available in Italy between May and September, strawberries are now a year-round fruit, thanks to imports from warmer climates. However, the varieties grown for export tend to be chosen for their ability to withstand transportation, rather than for their texture or flavor. The result is less tender berries with an unremarkable taste. The fact that strawberries intended for export are picked before they’re properly ripe, also means that their flavor is further impaired, since strawberries don’t ripen after being picked. In Italian markets this is also the time to look for the wild fragoline di bosco. Small, with a conical shape, red skin and white or cream flesh, they have a wonderfully intense aroma and woodsy flavor.
What fruits and vegetables are in season in June where you live?