Fact: produce is of better quality and taste when in season.
Though Italians have cooking and eating a selection of produce that rotates seasonally in their DNA, lately mass distribution and globalization have confused these cyclical, natural guidelines, making the calendar distinction on our plate a little fuzzy.
Here is a list of what fruits and vegetables are in season in May in Italy, gracing our market stalls from Sicily to the Alps.
Sorrel’s sharp, vinegary flavor – the Italian name acetosella derives from the Italian word aceto for ‘vinegar’ – can be served in 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 seed in your garden too, or in a large pot.
“Carciofi” are the buds of a large member of the thistle family. May is the last month to enjoy the sensational Roman Mammole (an equivalent of the globe artichoke) locally employed in a large number of recipes – deep fried alla giudia; braised with mint and garlic alla romana; sliced raw in salad and tossed with Parmesan flakes, olive oil and lemon juice; quartered, battered and fried along with chicken; used in springtime vignarola or sautéed with offal. The tender ends of the leaves attached at the stalk and the ‘heart’ of the bud are all edible, while the tough outside leaves and the furry central choke and its surrounding spiked leaves are better discarded.
Available from April to early June, asparagus are the young shoots of a cultivated lily plant. They’re considered one of the delicacies of the vegetable world, with a very distinct, intense savory flavor. The very slender wild asparagus (asparagi selvatici) are the best in terms of flavor, but this kind of asparagus is not cultivated, and can only be foraged in unkept fields and forest floor. Asparagus can be purple, green or white, but the latter is a variety that’s grown in Italy’s northern regions, where the climate is colder, beneath marshy soil and cut just as the tips emerge. All types of asparagus pack a nutritional punch, with high levels of vitamin A and C, potassium, iron and calcium, and are a potent diuretic.
The first aubergines (or eggplants) are starting to appear on Italian market stalls. Whether slender, speckled and striped, or bulbous, glossy, deep purple zepplin-like, Melanzane are a staple in southern Italian cuisine. Eggplant’s mildly smokey flavor and flesh that’s spongey 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, and then baked in the oven.
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 olive and garlic for a delicious vitamin boost!
Broad beans belong to the legume family, and offer a great source of protein and carbohydrates, as well as vitamin A, B1 and B2. Also known as fava beans, they 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 spring holiday practice.
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.
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 on the market stall 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 September to May. The tougher outer stalks are the best to cook with, while 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, which is the carrot, onion, celery mix that is the mainstay of many dishes.
Finocchio has a bulb-like shape that looks a little like a heavy-bottomed celery. When eaten raw, the texture is crisp and the flavor is quite 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 a welcome aromatic addition to Sicilian pasta dishes and other Mediterranean preparations.
Although more closely related to garlic, leeks taste more like a mild onion but with a hint of sweetness. Available all year round, leeks are at their best from October to May. They are very versatile and work well cooked in various recipes or as a side dish. Julienned and fried they make a sensational topping on vegetarian pasta or salad.
Lettuce is available all year round in a vast number of types, either crisp or floppy, but the peak is 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.
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, nepitella, 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.
The appearance of new potatoes (patate novelle) on Italian market stalls in late April 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. Did you know that 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 a 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 love them sliced in mixed salads, or eaten simply smeared with butter and sprinkled with sea salt.
A European plant of the dandelion family, salsify is also known as the oyster plant because of its oystery taste when cooked. Available from August to May, the root is similar in appearance to a long, thin tapered parsnip, with creamy white flesh and a thick brown skin.
The bitter, earthy flavor of spinaci is distinctive – you either love it or hate it – 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). Watch out, it reduces dramatically in volume during cooking!
Taccole (Snap peas or Mange tout)
Spring flat beans locally called Taccole are legumes, more specifically a variety of pea which is normally eaten whole in its pod while still unripe. The flavor is milder and sweeter than the average garden pea, and contains double the amount of Calcium. In season between May and August, Italians blanche them and then cook them with onions and tomato sauce until tender.
Topinambur (Jerusalem Artichoke)
At their best from November to March, this vegetable is not truly an artichoke but a lumpy, brown-skinned tuber that often resembles a ginger root. Contrary to what the name implies, this vegetable has nothing to do with Jerusalem. The white flesh of Topinambur is nutty, sweet and crunchy and is a good source of iron. The Piedmontese peel it and, once it’s cut in chunks, dip it in bagna càuda.
At their best between February to May, lemons are one of the most versatile fruits around, and contain high levels of Vitamin C. The best lemons for juicing or using for wedges are those with a smooth, thin skin, while the best for zesting are those with thicker, knobbly skin, which tend to be larger. Always buy unwaxed lemons (shops should state this clearly), especially if you’ll be using them for zesting. If you can’t find unwaxed produce, scrub the lemons thoroughly with baking soda before zesting. Tip: to extract the maximum amount of juice, make sure lemons are at room temperature.
Locally called nespole, loquats grow in clusters on evergreen trees. 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.
One of the best-known citrus fruits, oranges are at peak season between January and the end of April/beggining of May. Sweet varieties include the Navel orange, which is named after the navel-like bulge at one end, which contains a tiny, baby fruit inside. They are seedless, easy to peel, and have a juicy, sweet orange flesh. Valencia oranges have smooth, thin skins, with very few pips, and are particularly juicy. The skins of sanguinelle (blood oranges) are blushed with red, and the flesh ranges from golden to a deep ruby, and they are juicy and aromatic. The tarocco orange variety – another blood orange – is one of the world’s most popular oranges because of its sweetness and juiciness. It has the highest Vitamin C content of any orange variety grown in the world, mainly on account of the fertile soil surrounding Mount Etna where it is originally from.
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.
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. Available in Italy between January and July. Note: Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid, which is poison, so should never be eaten; so be sure to cut them off and discard!
Finally, May! That’s when the first Terracina variety of strawberries start coming in after what seems like and endless winter drought. 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? 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.
Visiting Italy soon and wishing to take a market exploration, guided by a food pro? Check out our Tours page!