Italian Vegetarian Recipes and the Culture of Vegetables in Southern Italy (Verdure)
The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras spent time in deep thought on the Ionian coast in Calabria, specifically in Crotone, and outside of his ideas in math and science he was known to have espoused the Pythagorean diet or what later become known as vegetarianism. The Pythagorean diet excluded meat, fish, and even beans and was tied more to religious and spiritual beliefs than pro-animal/health concerns. Hence some of the very first thinking on Vegetables in Southern Italy (Verdure).
While some Calabrians were likely vegetarians during the 5th century BCE ,the southern Italian of today does consume meat, but it still takes a back seat to the marvelous fruits and vegetables found in the Mezzogiorno (specifically, the region south of Roma, including Campania, Calabria, Sicilia, Basilicata, etc. translated as “midday”). Ancient, family owned, farms produce marvelous eggplant, blood oranges, artichokes, Femminello lemons, potatoes, tomatoes of mind-blowing varieties and colors, beans of every variety, Tropea red onions, basil, chards of numerous varieties, sweet peaches, world class figs, elegant pears, staggering varieties of berries, subtle cherries, etc. The small farms owned by our family members in Calabria, for example, have been producing potatoes, onions, fruits, tomatoes and olives for hundreds of years; needless to say, the farmers in our family are vegetable and fruit experts and produce some of the best produce on the planet (with a little help from the marvelous sun and dirt of the Mezzogiorno). And the fruits and vegetables can all be found at the numerous open air markets throughout southern Italy, presented lovingly by proud vendors.
For a list of some of our vegetable and fruit recipes click here.
Vegetables, specifically, are treated with tremendous respect at the southern Italian dinner table, often having their own designated course (as opposed to being piled on with the protein and starch at a typical American table). For example, when Fava beans become available during the Spring months every variation of the bean is served in order to celebrate and savor the item. Vegetables are also included as an antipasto in parts of southern Italy. For example, cannolini beans can be crushed with a mortar and pestle and infused with rosemary and buttery extra virgin olive oil and then spread on a piece of crostini. Eggplant can be lightly grilled and then stuffed with provola and baked in a layer of extra virgin olive oil. Vegetables can even finish a meal in a typical Calabrian home where fennel is used to cleanse the pallet just before espresso is served at the end of the meal.
Wild vegetables are also treasured and consumed in great quantity in Southern Italy. Our family in Calabria, for example, forages for wild asparagus, mushrooms, dandeloin greens, nettles, herbs, and lampascione in the forest surrounding their farmland(s). Wild greens and vegetables have an intense and unique flavor profile versus their domesticated counterparts; for example, the wild asparagus found just above sea level in the Bagnara Calabra region of Calabria are nothing like their meatier counterparts found at the market.
So, what are the southern Italians telling us about how to eat? Well, if you reduce the thinking above it’s simply a matter of eating more, high quality, seasonal and local vegetables. Our US based family is always hunting down the best fruit and vegetables at local markets and always eating “in season.” And while the fruits and vegetables sold in the US (though the items at farmer’s markets are getting better) are nothing like what can be found in the rural villages of southern Italy, a motivated family can find great variety and product in the US and incorporate more vegetables into their diet.