A solitary market stall in Pomposa, near Ferrara, selling pumpkins of all shapes and sizes in late October of last year. It doesn’t get more Italian – and yet, of course, it’s not Italian at all…
Like maize – another crop that is grown very extensively here in the Po Valley – and tomatoes – which we all associate so closely with Italian food – the humble pumpkin actually originated in North America (Mexico, probably), and was unheard of on this side of the Atlantic until the Age of Exploration.
American folklore is full of stories of Pilgrim Fathers being given pumpkins by the native peoples they met in their new home, and using them in imaginative ways to stave off starvation in the early days of their settlement, but nothing they did – or are said to have done – even compares to the inventiveness of the Italians in the kitchen.
The fruit here will all have gone into a range of imaginative recipes, sweet and savoury: soups, breads, cakes, risottos, pastas, tarts, cannoli… Abundant, nutritious, and very easy to store, they will have found their way onto dining tables from October until well into the New Year. Like maize and the tomato, the pumpkin, particularly here in the Po Valley, and also further north, in the Veneto, has become as Italian as, well, polenta and tomato sauce.
Pumpkin ravioli is a popular and trendy recipe at the moment, (especially one that utilises the secret ingredient of amaretti biscuits to add a subtle crunch and bitter-sweetness to the flesh of the pumpkin. Go on, try it.)