The whole neighbourhood is full of huge radiant pumpkins, perched boastfully on top of walls and dotted on verges to dazzle passersby. With mine still green and attached to their vines, I was developing a bit of an inferiority complex.
None of the other proudly displayed cucurbits are quite as big or fine as those of Renato the rabdomante (water diviner) who is also a master ortolano (vegetable grower). I told him that mine wouldn’t ripen.
“Did you put them in late? They have to do their days,” he said.
I don’t think I put mine in particularly late (I’m sure, though, that Renato has a pre-ordained date, handed down from generation to generation, which he considers the only possible day for pumpkin planting). I did, however, put them in haphazardly when some mishap bumped all my cucurbit seedlings off their shelf in the greenhouse, after which I recovered any green bits that looked even vaguely viable from the mangled pile of potting compost on the floor and stuck them willy-nilly in the garden outside the kitchen.
“You just need to be patient,” Renato told me. “They’ll come good. But adesso un giorno ne vuole due” – one day requires two at this time of year. It took me a while to process that nugget of wisdom.
Then it dawned on me: I didn’t have a clue what I’d planted. I rifled through my empty seed packets, and dredged up records of recent orders from my favourite supplier Chase Organics. As far as I could tell, the only plants that survived my manhandling were Chioggia sea pumpkins (Cucurbita maxima Marina di Chioggia) and Futsu squash (Cucurbita moschata Futsu Black Rinded). Neither of these turns orange. (Well, strictly speaking the Futsu can, but only after quite a while off the vine.) My feelings of inadequacy vanished.
All of which got me thinking: my record with cucurbits has been so very patchy (for many years I’ve had about two – literally – courgettes off my C. pepo var. cylindrica plants, after which they’ve been ravaged by mildew and I’ve ripped them out in frustration) that I really have never taken the trouble to find out much about them. Is there a difference, for example, between pumpkin and squash?
It would seem not, and nomenclature tends to change from place to place. My Chioggia sea pumpkins – so-called because they were developed in cold sea-damp places around Chioggia, south of Venice – are in the Cucurbita maxima group, which seems to comprise a lot of charmingly nobbly, turban-shaped fruits, some of which grow to immense proportions. Many of them are referred to as squash.
Cucurbita moschata, on the other hand, comprises all kinds of wierdly-shaped creatures: long-necked, twisty, blobby (butternut squash for example) and melon-y. Plus my little Futsu, which look like a regular fluted pumpkin, except shrunken.
The massive orange ones that had me thinking my pumpkins were not up to scratch all belong to the C. pepo group which, apart from being the oldest known cultivated plant variety of all, is also a vast umbrella, taking in an unthinkable number of different shapes and sizes.
More importantly in my unprecedentedly cucurbit-filled season, rampaging vines have transformed the garden outside the kitchen into a lush jungle for much of the summer, and they show no signs of stopping: even now they’re producing giant leaves and incipient fruit which of course will never go anywhere, no matter how many days they get. Now we find ourselves with six immense Chioggia pumpkins and a smattering of little Futsu (plus the three runaway round courgettes pictured here which are destined for Halloween cut-outs). It’s going to be a pumpkin-intense winter.
Yesterday I went to the presentation of the CdP musical appreciation society. I rushed up to town, 20 minutes late as is my wont, hoping that the few potential adherents hadn’t trickled away before I arrived. But the biggest room in Palazzo della Corgna was packed out: I had to stand to be talked through the events put together for these final months of the year and the romp through the organisers’ ambitious wish-list for years to come.
Once again it brought home to me what an exceptional place we’ve ended up – accompanied, as usual, by a slight feeling of guilt at my own inaction.
This is, after all, a town of around 7,800 people of whom only about 1,200 (these are figures from the 2011 census) live in the centro storico, the others being scattered in satellites and far-flung farmhouses. Yet we have a hyper-active adult education ‘Libera Università’, a very proactive women’s organisation, three terzieri (districts) which stage one of Italy’s largest historical processions each summer, a buyers’ group and now, hopefully, a musical society.
Pievesi residents moan endlessly about pievese inactivity, sloth and navel-gazing. I’d say, however, that we’re not doing badly.
I should never crow about progress at my project in town. The moment I do, something goes awry. This time, it was the church tower.
Despite my dark looks and my arguments that the Church is nothing but a criminal organisation, my builder allowed our parish priest to twist his arm and send him and his pot-holing equipment abseiling down the campanile to reach parts of the wobbly structure that other builders couldn’t possibly reach. I remonstrated that if he worked in a bank and the parish priest needed his accounts done, they’d fire him if he disappeared for a week at the Church’s beck and call. Little good it did me.
Just as well, then, that this splendid autumn is here to distract me. You couldn’t ask for clearer bluer days. The temperatures are in the mid-20s. Rain comes fast and hard, then passes on, leaving happy plants and happier weeds in its wake. It would be misleading to say that the colours in the woods are on the turn: it’s all looking fantastically green. But there’s some underlying hint – just a whisper of approaching autumn that makes everything feel… well, different from summer.
I wouldn’t say the garden was looking its neatest: for some reason a fit of sloth has overtaken me. But it is looking happy, and that’s a good thing. Each time I walk through from the wonderful exotic perfume of Eleagnus around the car park down to the heady Rosa Felicia by the front door, I’m filled with a swoony warmth. It’s a lovely time of year.