Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Milky Mornings and Italian Markets

A peach-coloured sun hanging above a dusty mauve hillside peeped through my bathroom window this morning. Not so long ago it would have been pitch black at this hour making getting up so much more arduous. The late afternoons are no longer a time to snuggle up indoors with a cup of tea and Ready Steady Cook. At 4 o’clock in winter it always feels that there is nothing left of the day. Yet almost overnight we found ourselves on Monday playing with the children in the garden till past 7 o’clock. Suddenly bedtime becomes less urgent, the day still feels full of possibilities. Despite the fact this happens twice a year, in both directions – dark to light, light to dark – I still always marvel at how quickly we adjust to the new rhythms, forgetting almost instantly how it was just a few weeks earlier.

For me that is the great joy of seasons. I would hate to live in a part of the world where it gets dark at the same time 365 days of the year, where the only seasons are winter and summer and not much difference between them beyond a few degrees of temperature. It would be so dull to have to wear the same type of clothes all year. I love putting away the heavy wintry things and bringing out the light summer linens. And I’m always amazed at how tight and restrictive my winter shoes feel after a summer of sandals and flip-flops. It’s all about contrast. The seasons give the picture of life tone and depth, as sunshine and shadow brings a photograph alive.

I took advantage of the milky morning and walked the children to school again. The woodpeckers are out in force now, echoing around the wide valley, and it’s hard not to smile when jaunty daffodils are decorating the roadsides with their gaudy yellow display. Sheep scattered guiltily to the side of the lane as we approached, trying frantically to find the hole through which they’d escaped. The streams played a happy tune and we nodded our good mornings to assorted dog-walkers and neighbours. The beauty of the day was only briefly shattered as my smallest screeched ‘Phwaw, what’s that stinky smell – the cows are eating rotten fish in their big gobs’. This was an interesting image and one I can safely say I’d not thought of before. I suggested it was unlikely then left it at that. Imagination is all and I hate to quash it.

On the return I was left to my own peaceful thoughts. They meandered from acknowledging the contentment of the moment - in the air I was breathing, the sounds I was hearing, the sights I was seeing – to the relative horrors of the school ‘run’ in London, where how to avoid the rush hour congestion was the only serious consideration. No regrets there then. As I fell to contemplating the seasons again, I couldn’t help my mind recalling the images I’d received on my recent return to northern Italy. There is nowhere better to appreciate seasonal bounty than in an Italian market and I love the way they still celebrate the individuality of each month by the products you see on the market stalls. At the moment it’s all artichokes and asparagus. Soon it will be peas, then tomatoes, basil, aubergines and courgettes; then mushrooms, squash, pumpkins and clementines. And so it goes on. Year after year, a culinary ritual, a celebration of the best that the season has to offer. To think that this used to be my daily shopping experience. Now I am back to angrily ripping plastic off individually wrapped peppers in Morrisons, having the same boring choice of boring tasteless fruit and veg all year round and searching in vain for radicchio. I admit I am guilty of buying strawberries in January and asparagus and tomatoes from Israel. But it is so much harder when you have to go further afield to find the best of the seasonal produce available. I know I should find more time to go to Farmer’s Markets and I have often considered an organic box – but most of the people I know say they frantically end up making soup with the glut of shrivelled vegetables that seem an inevitable by-product of the good intention. Ultimately, for me, the pleasure is seeing and choosing for myself. Being inspired by what is in front of me, feeling excited and enthusiastic about the next meal I am going to cook. That is the joy of a colourful, chaotic Italian market place. Somehow the English version just doesn’t quite match up.
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