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.
Welcome back to our monthly appointment with produce seasonality. October and its fabulous Fall harvest provides our bodies with sensational fruit and vegetables whose nutrients will sustain us through the colder months ahead. Here’s our brand new list of what fruit and vegetables are in season in October in Italy.
After being a popular salad ingredient in the ’70s beetroot is now enjoying somewhat of a comeback. Thanks to its earthy, rich and sweet flavor and distinctive vibrant color, it lends itself to a variety of both sweet and savory preparations. Available in Italy between August and May, locals also use the beet greens sauteéd with olive oil and garlic for a delicious vitamin boost!
Like cabbage and cauliflower, broccoli is a cruciferous (brassica) and is sometimes known by its Italian name, Calabrese. Its tight clusters of deep green buds and thick, edible stems are a great source of Vitamin C and calcium. Go for firm, bright green, undamaged heads (if it’s yellow it has already past its peak) and firm stalks. In season between late spring to November.
Brussel sprouts are related to cabbage – they even look like a miniature, compact version – but they boast a sweeter, more delicate, nutty flavor. They make their appearance on market stalls between October and March, and grow in multiple rows along a thick, central stalk. A true autumn and winter staple, the sprouts can be mixed with fried guanciale (cured pig’s jowl–somewhat similar to pancetta), maple syrup and black pepper as a nice seasonal power mix that keeps the cold season at bay.
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, Brussels sprouts as well as bok choi, popular in Asian cookery. Cabbage itself comes in many forms, and shapes can be flat, conical or round, the 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.
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 top greens still attached.
Super food par excellence, cavolo nero (lancinato kale, Tuscan kale, black kale or dinosaur) is the popular loose-leafed cabbage from Tuscany whose leaves are a very dark green, almost black, with pleasantly tangy, bitter flavor and a sweet aftertaste. It is a popular ingredient in many classic Italian soups like Ribollita or Zuppa di Magro and is essential for Minestrone.
The unsung hero of the vegetable world is available year round but is at its best from September to May. Knobby, odd-shaped celeriac is recognizeable in the market as the weird root with rhino-tough skin. The surprise is the subtle, celery-like flavor, with nutty overtones. Try it as mash, in big-flavored, slow-cooked stews, or in its classic form, and as they do en France, as a remoulade.
Sedano, in Italian, is available all year round, but the season here runs from late July to late February. The tougher outer stalks are the best to cook with, the inner, more tender stalks are better for eating raw. The leafy tops are a great addition to salads. It is essential in a soffritto, or mirepoix in French, the carrot, onion, celery mix that is the mainstay of many dishes.
Fennel’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, almost buttery. 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 “allium” 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. The dried bulbs, assembled in braids, are 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.
Kohlrabi (cavolo rapa)
Looking something like a Sputnik rocket in vegetable form, with a squat bulb and antennae-like shoots, kohlrabi is part of the cabbage family. The Italian name cavolo rapa translates as ‘turnip cabbage’ and the mild, sweet flavor is somewhere between a turnip and a water chestnut, with a crisp, crunchy texture. It can be found in two colors, pale green and the less common purple. Available all year round, kohlrabi is at its best from mid-July to mid October. Contains awesome amounts of potassium, magnesium and Vitamin C.
Although more closely related to garlic, leeks taste (more) like a mild onion but with a hint of sweetness. Available all year round, but at their best from September to March, leeks are very versatile and work well cooked in various recipes or as a side dish.
Fresh peas are available almost all year round and 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.
Sometimes called bell peppers or capsicums, these sweet, mild peppers come in variety of colors, and are related to chilies. Whatever color you find them (at their peak between the end of July and October) they’re all essentially the same variety, but have been allowed to ripen to different degrees; green are the youngest and sharpest, followed by yellow, orange and then red, which are the sweetest. You can also find longer, pointed examples, locally called peperone corno (horn), which are sweeter still, and the sweetest are the miniature friggitelli, which look like unripened green chili peppers, but that once tossed in a pan with just a drizzle of olive oil and an unshelled clove of garlic, reveal a sweet and smoky flavor.
Italian pumpkin season runs from October to late December. Local varieties include the sweet Mantovana, which goes in the filling of typical Modena tortelli; Turbante turco (turban); Marina di Chioggia, knobbly skin, and sweet orange pulp; Grigia di Bologna, grey skin and orange pulp, often used in jams; and the giant Quintale, Italy’s largest variety.
Belonging to the dandelion family and available in Italian markets between late September and May, salsify is also known as the oyster plant because of its oystery taste when cooked. The root is similar in appearance to a long, thin tapered parsnip, with creamy white flesh and a thick, dark brown-black skin.
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.
Available all year round, but best from July through to early November, Swiss chard is also known as just plain chard, and has large, fleshy, tender deep green leaves and thick, crisp stalks. Different types of chard have different colored ribs – some are white, some are a golden orange and some are red (called ruby or rhubarb chard) – there’s even rainbow chard, but there’s very little difference in taste between these.
You can buy winter turnips all year-round, although peak season is from October to February. Creamy-white with lovely purple, red or greenish upper part where the taproot has been exposed to sunlight. Before the arrival of the potato, turnips were one of the main sources of sustenance for Italian peasants. Turnip leaves or ‘greens’ (locally called cime di rapa) can also be eaten boiled, steamed, stir-fried. Orecchiette with Turnip greens are a typical Puglia specialty.
Gala variety apples are in season at the end of summer, and the ones I’ve tasted this year are phenomenal. At their best between September and November – crisp and juicy or more yielding, according to variety – apples are a good source of vitamins A and C, as well as fiber. An apple a day… you know the drill.
Available from the end of July to mid-October, blackberries locally called more [MOH reh] in Italian, are wonderfully juicy, bursting with vitamin C and great eaten raw (straight from the hedge!). They can be also cooked in coulis and pies. Look for plump, shiny, tender berries, with none that are mushy or moldy. If you buy a punnet, check that the underside isn’t stained – that means the lower level of berries has been crushed.
The cultivation of the domesticated grape began 6,000 years ago in the Near East, with the earliest archeological evidence for a dominant position of wine-making dating from 8,000 years ago, in Georgia. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 75,866 square kilometers of the world are cultivated in grapevines, and this planted area is increasing by about 2% each year. As a wine lover, this makes me very happy. But wine grapes – known as noble grapes – and common table grapes are two very distinct fruits. In season from late September to November, table grape cultivars tend to have large, sometimes seedless fruit with relatively thin skin. Wine grapes are instead smaller, usually with seeds, in tighter clusters with relatively thicker skins – a desirable characteristic in winemaking. Wine grapes also tend to be very sweet: they are harvested at the time when their juice is approximately one fourth sugar by weight.
In season from September through to January, pears boast sweet, granular flesh which is delicate and that bruises easily when ripe, so always buy slightly underripe (they should be firm but not hard). Pears ripen from the inside out! Great paired with aged cheese…
Though originally from the Orient, you’ll see plenty of persimmon trees in the Italian countryside. The actual fruits – locally called ‘Loti’ or ‘Kaki’ – are quite firm until they ripen, at which point they become voluptuously soft, with a silky mouthfeel and the weight and texture of a water balloon. The many varieties of persimmon ripen from October through March. Ripe persimmons are very delicate, and you’ll see them in Italian markets carefully packed in padded styrofoam trays or mesh.
Prickly Pear (fichi d’India)
In season September through November, prickly pears – also known as cactus fruit – typically grow on the flat pads of a the nopal, a Central American native cactus that populates many southern Italian regions. A sweet, creamy pulp is concealed by a thorn-studded skin. To get past the prickly exterior and into their sweet, succulent soul you’ll need kitchen tongs, a sharp knife, tweezers and a pair of hefty gardening gloves.
When ripe, quince are very fragrant, with smooth, golden yellow skin. Their hard, bitter flesh is used almost exclusively for cooking, rather than eaten raw. Once cooked, the flesh develops a deeper flavor and turns a golden pink. Quinces contain high level of pectin, which makes them great for making jellies, jams and other preserves, such as the Italian quince paste, cotognata, which is often served with cheese. Quinces are in season from late September through the end of November.
NUTS & DRIED FRUIT
Fresh chestnuts are around from the end of September to the end of January. Caldarroste (open fire-roasted chestnuts) are sold on the street in Italy, releasing their unique comforting and wintery aroma. The sweet, crumbly nut also provides Italians (and Tuscans, in particular) with chestnut flour which is employed in interesting desserts like castagnaccio (a gluten-free brownie of sorts, added with raisins, pine nuts and rosemary needles) and necci, which are delightful chestnut flour pancakes. In contrast to other nuts, chestnuts have a low oil and a high water content (hence their unique, soft texture) and should never be eaten raw. An old Italian wives tale says eating raw chestnust will give you head lice!
Dates are sweet, with a rich, deep flavor and a lush, slightly chewy texture. The mahogany brown Medjool variety is the sweetest, and tastes a little like toffee. Dates are one of the oldest cultivated fruits: it’s thought that they were a staple part of the Babylonian diet 8,000 years ago. At Christmas time Italians indulge in dried fruits and nuts, and dates – either stuffed with almonds, plain, or smeared with salted butter – are a big part of that sweet meal ending. Dried dates are available the whole year round, but the fresh type are at their best between October and January.
What fruit and vegetables are in season where you live?