Italians don’t set their clocks forward until March 31st, which also the day Easter is celebrated this year. But spring is already springing forth in subtle ways here, reminding us that the long, lovely days of summer can’t be far behind.
March has brought with it a renewed sense of energy. Farmers are out in force, preparing the fields for spring planting. They’re pruning and grafting in their orchards and wrapping up the all-important late winter/early spring vineyard maintenance. Seeds have appeared in the weekly market, baby chicks are on offer and wild asparagus is just pushing its way out of the country soil, visible only to those with a practiced eye.
So we’re throwing ourselves into our own spring renewal projects, which are daunting. Our olive grove is in serious need of what’s called “una potatura severa” (a severe pruning). We’re also planting some new bare root fruit trees to supplement the pears, plums, pomegranates, almonds, walnuts and figs we’ve already got. But as you might imagine, our Italian farming friends quickly put any ideas about fruit tree propagation and orchard management we thought were valid to rest. We’ve been taken under several different wings here, going to school on any number of topics from cherry tree grafting to olive tree pruning and we’ve got the scars to prove it.
The work is mitigated by the sheer joy of longer, warmer days. The sun on our faces is a welcome glimpse into the summer to come. And since these spring chores are always accomplished “in comitiva” (in a group), we’ve come to understand what generations of Italians have always known: many hands make light work. And then there’s the lunch . . .
Several days last week, Brian helped friends in their cherry orchard in nearby Pascarosa, learning to graft desirable, productive cherry varieties onto strong, native wood. He also began to appreciate the Zen of pruning where no tree is exactly alike. Some days, lunch is just a panino or some bread, cheese and cured meats, but on this day, a Sunday, we observed the Sunday pranzo ritual, al fresco this time. From focaccia and semolina loaves made in a wood-burning oven to grilled lamb chops and sausage to almond biscotti and an after-lunch digestive made from myrtle, it was all we could do to pick up the pruning clippers to finish the day’s work. As the sun slowly set, we packed up our tools and our picnic, grateful for the chance to participate in the ritual of renewal.
Insalata di Finocchio ed Arance—Fennel and Orange Salad
1 large or 2 small fennel bulbs
2 large or 3 small oranges
½ cup picholine olives (substitute with any other small, black olives)
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup best quality extra virgin olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
Coarsely ground black pepper
Cut off the stems and feathery fronds of the fennel bulb and remove any bruised or discolored outer layers. Cut the bulb in half lengthwise and cut out any tough core parts. Lay each bulb half flat on the cutting board and slice the bulb, taking care to slice as thinly as you possibly can. Alternatively, use a mandolin to achieve thin fennel slices. Put the sliced fennel in the bowl you will use to serve the salad. Reserve the feathery fronds.
With a sharp knife, slice the top and bottom of the orange off so that you have a flat surface on both ends. Using a sharp paring knife, slice the orange from top to bottom to remove the rind and white pith. Work your way around the orange, removing rind and pith as you go. When you’ve finished, you should have a whole orange without any white pith visible.
Holding the orange over the bowl you will use to serve the salad, insert your paring knife into each section of the orange, making a cut on either side of the membrane that is holding the orange section in place. The section, or supreme, will then drop into the bowl. Working your way around the orange, make the same series of cuts until each supreme has released from the orange membrane and is in the bowl. Here is a great video that will walk you through the orange supreme process.
Add the olives (with or without pits, but be sure to warn your guests if you decide to leave them in), cider vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Chop about 2-3 Tbsp. of the feathery fennel fronds and add them to the ingredients in the serving bowl.
With clean hands, gently mix the ingredients in the salad bowl. You can hold the salad in the refrigerator or leave it out until you serve it.