Whilst scoffing mango and strawberries with my nephew the other day, I found myself thinking of my friends in Sicily with pity. This is the season when they have pretty much no fruit, you see. Oranges fizzle out in February, and then there’s basically nothing till May.
Fruit and veg in season
The idea of only eating fresh fruit in season is highly trendy in England.
When I say it is trendy in England, don’t get me wrong. People don’t actually DO it. It’s just trendy to TALK about how good it would be if they did do it. It would be sooooooo healthy.
In Sicily, on the other hand, it is something everyone does because they have no choice.
Is seasonal produce healthier?
It’s a conversation we’ve probably all had. Fruit and vegetables have no taste these days because they’re all grown in greenhouses, with chemicals and climate control to make the plants bear fruit at the wrong time of year. They have no vitamins when they’re grown this way. It’s why we’re all tired these days. And fat. No doubt it’s why we all have allergies and diabetes and zits. We were all so much healthier in the olden days. Blah blah blah.
I’ve espoused these views myself, back when I lived in London and took it for granted that I could get cherries in February and oranges in June.
No, it isn’t
I did read a scientific article claiming that vegetables grown in greenhouses were analysed and had the same vitamin rating as vegetables grown out of doors in season. The nutritional content of fruit and veg is a result of the nutritional content of the soil, it concluded, not the circulation of the open air.
Seasonal produce is tastier
I would go on holiday to Italy, Greece, Spain, and marvel at the extraordinarily intense flavour of each and every tomato, olive and pear. I revelled in the nutrients I could feel coursing through my veins. Oh, it was all so much better.
Why do Mediterranean fruit and vegetables and herbs have more flavour?
Any Sicilian can tell you why. It rains very little so they grow in concentrated form. Too much rain always ruins the olives and the tomatoes, they say. Vegetables from north Europe grow waterlogged and the flavour is diluted. Northern herbs have the faintest of flavours compared with the explosive taste of Mediterranean ones. But flavour is not the same thing as nutrition.
Suck on a vitamin pill if you don’t believe me. They taste so awful you’ll probably puke.
Seasonal produce is hideously boring
Once I came to live in Sicily, I realised all this primeval naturalness is a double-edged sword. You see, when I mentioned earlier that from February till May, there’s no fruit, what I meant was, you can’t buy anything, categorised as fruit, to eat. Nothing. Niente. Nada. There just happens to be no fruit in season, in Sicily, in those months.
You can at least juice the good old lemons, thank heavens, to ward off scurvy, and offer up a little prayer of thanks to whichever North African decided to bring them over on his ship. But apart from that, there’s nowt, duck! (…as they say here in Stoke).
I am here to tell you that it is miserable. You really can get sick of chocolate and fed up of pasta.
When I taught English to classes of children in Sicily, I used to ask them which was their favourite month, and why. A few named the month of their birthday, because they got presents. But in every class, more than half the kids would say their favourite month is May, because you can eat fruit. May is the glorious month when we suddenly get medlars, plums, apricots, more plums, greengages, other types of plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines, and diarrhoea. Yes we all give ourselves diarrhoea. You try eating no fruit for three months and then see how good you are at rationing yourself.
Is it really so healthy to spend months deprived of any fruit, or periods of the year living on one single type of vegetable? It’s certainly makes you appreciate each individual food when at last you can eat it, but spending most of the year without it is no fun.
You have no idea how hard it is to adapt
Even when there is a bit more in season, your choices are really limited. When I brought my entire household of chattels down to Sicily, lock stock and barrel, I included my favourite English cookery books. Looking through them in Sicily, I realised about 85% of the recipes were useless.
Apple pie with orange segments and freshly grated orange zest? Exactly how was I going to work this one? Apples come in September and oranges come in January. It would be a recipe with the longest preparation time in pie history. Or what about all those marvellous flans? With vegetable combinations spanning half the year?
Getting foods from abroad
The people of the ancient world were all completely obsessed with transporting crops from one country to another and carefully establishing them there.
The ancient Romans literally invaded countries to get their crops.
Before people added to the local variety like this, they were nomads. If the fruit won’t come to the people, the people shall come to the fruit. People walked literally thousands of miles because they knew a certain fruit or vegetable would be in season, and they wanted it. Their lives revolved entirely around getting adequate nutrition.
(Incidentally, one of the side-effects of this was that people could easily spot the medicinal effects of plants and herbs they ate. If you eat one food in excess, and to the exclusion of others, you will probably become a bit of an instinctive herbalist yourself. And so early medicine was born.)
Increasing variety improves health and saves lives
A great many individuals suffered from severe nutritional deficiencies in the past. We know from looking at ancient skeletons that people in past times had scurvy, ricketts, and many other diseases caused by their vitamin-poor diets.
Don’t be decieved by stories of the Garden of Eden, or those idealised tales of the noble savage living a charmed existence invented by the French during their period of “Enlightenment”. Real nature is cruel and maggotty and has lice and wobbly teeth. It has a bloated belly and a few scabs. And swarms of locusts.
The hard work of transporting plant stock
So as I was saying, early men devoted their lives to taking different plants to different places so there would be more variety and more months with stuff to eat in them.
Travelling on a ship with masses of live plants on it must have been remarkably uncomfortable, as anyone who has squeezed into a sailboat will realise, and keeping them alive on a long sea journey by giving them drinkable water involved considerable self discipline. You would have to be passionately motivated to do such a thing.
The Phoenicians brought figs, vines and olives to Sicily. They also probably brought the Manna tree. The Greeks brought various types of beans and pulses, particularly the sturdy grain spelt, and lentils. The Romans brought more fruits. Then the Arabs came with dates, pistachios, citrus fruits, sugar cane, and mulberries. The Germans brought most of the herbs that flourish in Sicily. The Spanish brought tomatoes, potatoes and Indian Figs which bear prickly pears.
Everyone who invaded Sicily added something to the menu and, in so doing, filled in some of the barren months where nothing growing in this fertile soil bore fruit. And I thank them all from the bottom of my heart.
But I also thank Sainsbury’s, for bringing me out of season stuff from some greenhouse somewhere, as well.
Here’s a calendar of the seasons in Sicily. If you come here on holiday, make sure you try all the delicacies of the season!
- cantalupe melons
- prickly pears (Indian figs)
- cantalupe melons
- cachi (Sharon fruit)
- cachi (Sharon fruit)