December 11, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Not a Caravaggio-like summer

By |2019-09-13T15:03:11+02:00September 9th, 2019|"Suzanne's Taste"|
Detail from Caravaggio's "Flowers and Fruit": not a summer he would have liked.

lmost every year, toward the end of summer, I have sauntered out into whatever garden I had at the time (there have been many) and with my trusty shears, snipped off several lovely beefsteak tomatoes, a couple of perfectly mature yellow zucchini, a fragrant handful of fresh cilantro, parsley, basil, Greek oregano, lemon thyme, mint, and even the leaves of the fairly unknown fenugreek plant (surreptitiously dug up from the hills around our little ville and replanted chez nous).

I have often arranged my harvest of tomatoes, zucchini, and herbs in a large garden basket, and admired the picture they presented — a still life worthy of Caravaggio.

High temperatures, strong Saharan winds, and massive rainfalls made most of August just a tad disappointing.

Not so this year.

High temperatures, strong Saharan winds, and massive rainfalls swollen with heaven knows what made most of August just a tad disappointing. One wind storm turned our outside table the color of sepia.

May I use the term “global warming”?

Maybe I’m spoiled. This late summer harvest is what has made me grow accustomed to having fresh San Marzano sauces on hand in the freezer, ready for winter use. Add to that, lovely tubs of pesto from the basil bounty of July.

This year, I’ll be lucky if my two little basil plants produce enough for a couple of Sunday night pizzas, much less spaghetti al pesto for the multitudes. Sigh.

On the bright side, earlier in the year my garden helper and I used a saw to pare down the sage plant that had been taking over large patches. It has since come back so beautifully that perhaps I shouldn’t complain. Sage, after all, discourages vampires, treats fevers, and removes evil spirits from newly inhabited dwellings. Not to mention the savory nudges it gives to a sautéed pork chop, or the magic it creates when crisped in butter and spooned over fresh ravioli.

Maybe I should just chalk up this summer to unforeseen acts of nature and start planting for fall. Things could be worse. We could be the targets of those killer hornets that seem to have decided to make a home in parts of France. So far not a hornet in sight, instead only the bees that adore the sage. They fertilize the cherry tomato plants very satisfactorily, even if the plants were uninvited volunteers from last year’s windfall. Still, a couple of hundred cherry tomatoes do not a beefsteak make, sorry.

This year’s pathetic zucchini.

Those succulent slabs of tomato covered with tonnato sauce or topped with sweet, thinly sliced onions (or just bitten into with a little salt) won’t be on hand this year.

There are, of course, market tomatoes, but, though they may lure in unsuspecting shoppers with their pretty faces, they seem to me lacking in taste. Plus, they go soft and mushy far too quickly.

However, there’s a bright side — a plethora of the most amazing nectarines I have ever tasted. Go figure. And since we do not have nectarine trees in our postage stamp potagerie, I’m coming to believe there is a garden god after all.

But nectarine pesto for my pasta is, at least for now, out of the question.

But awash in so much sage, I can at least sleep easy knowing vampires will keep their distance.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.