I have been in Europe for two-and-a-half-weeks now. It is official – my body and mind have adapted completely to “the European way,” and, more specifically to “the Italian way,” primarily when it comes to the eating.
A little cappuchi + brioche in the morning (my favorite is a millefiori version of croissant-like dough concealing a sweet wild honey,) then a nice lunch, likely containing the ingredients of whatever is on hand (a pasta whipped up with ragu made by a neighbor, a nonna, a friend, and a nice little selection of special meats and cheeses collected in the towns we visit during the day.) And then a sensible dinner made with more of the same, but likely including herbs picked from the garden, olive oil made from the grove in the backyard, maybe some limoncello of the lemons from the neighbor. It’s ridiculous just how close this nation lives to its land, how uncompromising they are when it comes to the quality – and proximity – of their food. I love it.
The approach to ingredients is just one example of how there are not “ways” in Italy. There is “THE way.” The way that the tomato sauce has been made for years — nonna’snonna’s nonna’s nonna prepared it this way, so that’s how nonna does it now. The recipes go back generations -the purposes for this herb, that cheese, this preparation- have uses so engrained in family history that to doubt them is to doubt the sanity of ancestors. (Which, you do not do.) For someone like me this is fascinating because eating in Italy is not about variety or creativity, its about tradition and simplicity. Literally, if something isn’t broke, don’t fix it, and there is nothing broke about eating the bounty that is Italy.
Here my enthusiasm about eating, and the amount of gobbling that I have been doing — gelato, pasta, good wines, cheeses, honey on the cheeses, fruits, more cheese — isn’t surprising to anyone. Rolling your eyes back in your head at the first bite of something SO delicious is all part of the enjoying and is entirely expected of everyone sharing your table. Which makes the gobbling all the more enjoyable and absolutely shameless.
There are times, between meals, however, when my true culinary personality breaks through — most of the time this happens at the market, or when I’m the recipient of a small bumper crop of some amazing ingredient, and when I’m thinking about what to prepare for myself in the little kitchen at the apartment in Impruneta. Most recently, this has been figs. So so so so so many figs.
“Sei pronti,” says Matteo — the figs are in their moment. And their moment is going to last the next couple of weeks are so which makes my mouth literally water. I have been missing the figs and berries that seem to be so plentiful in California this time of year but frankly forgot all about the Golden State when the big, green, honey-dripping fruits began to fall from the trees this week here in Tuscany. Fruits so big and squishy that they ooze their nectar the moment that your fingers touch the skin. Fruits so bountiful that you can pluck enough from the branches to fill the folds of your skirt, and both of your hands, and the hands of your friends. Enough fruit bearing trees that you can stop your bike, or your car, on the country roads to fill your mouth and the front seat.
Sweetness enough that just because you got a whole box of them from your friend’s father in Calabria, you still want to pick more from the trees to take home from Umbria. Enough figs that they are appearing in gelato, next to pecorino and cheese on aperitivo platters, and in our jersey pockets on rides. Figs filling up our countertop to the extent that I have been eating them with every meal and even had to start getting creative with them in the kitchen. Don’t tell the nonni.
The one thing that I don’t love about Italian cooking and eating is that there aren’t many *exciting* salads (even though so many delicious ingredients would comprise one) and so that is the first thing that I whip up when making a meal for myself. Everyone from Calabria to Chianti seems to agree that figs – of any variety – seem to go quite well with arugula, parmesan, and prosciutto. Usually a fig is split in two, a piece of cheese is placed inside, then the fig is wrapped in proscuitto and served on a plate with arugula. Delicious. But I have been taking this to a salad level most days around lunch time.
Unlike a typical Italian chef, if I don’t have parmesan, the below salad is not forsaken. Nor are my efforts at a loss if I have valeriana or mixed greens instead of arugula, salami instead of prosciutto. And, I might just add in some cooked farro or toasted nuts if I have them. I don’t ask permission or opinion of the nonni – I just do it.
As you’ll see, there is little science to my preparations here so the “recipe” that you’ll see below is less of a recipe and more like a “kitchen sink” approach – a little bit of what I have on hand goes in the bowl, and then I fork into it with glee. You’ll see. If figs are of the moment wherever you are, I highly suggest you give it a good shot. Enjoy!