The first agriculture we undertook at La Petraia was the planting of a vegetable garden. Of course we had our own vision of what it would be, not exactly the same one as our Tuscan friends and helpers. There was much discussion, negotiation and gnashing of teeth, for with a garden, as with all property in Italy, owning it doesn’t make it yours. Tuscans share a sense of possession of not just their own land but of their countryside, for they have hunted on it, foraged on it and cultivated it for centuries. It is theirs.
In the end, by incorporating the best of all views, the first vegetable garden was finished and soon joined by a second, a third and a fourth. These magnificent plots afford us the ability, year-round, to go to the garden to see what dinner will be. In the absence of guests, our meals are largely vegetarian. We save our game, pork, poultry and rabbit to share with visitors. We were vegetarians in previous lives and appreciate a respite from a meal where an animal has been sacrificed. Instead, we slaughter a plant or two.
As Canadians, we’re accustomed to a limited growing season, so the ability to grow food in the dead of winter is a miracle. In mid-November we pull up the last of the tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, but the winter garden is just getting started. There are leeks, onions, lettuces, cabbages, broccoli, beets, kohlrabi, turnips, fennel, celery, parsnips, carrots, cardoons and brussels sprouts to keep us going until early spring, when fava beans, potatoes, peas and asparagus begin to appear.
Local visitors to Petraia are astounded by the bounty of our gardens. Our altitude, and the fact that we farm systemically, mean we sometimes avoid pests that plague other farms. Water is abundant and uncontaminated; the Pesa River begins its life on our land before winding its way down a long valley through the heart of Chianti and gaining force at Montelupo Fiorentino, where it meets the Arno River and begins the journey to Pisa and the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Thankfully, the vegetable in Italy, like the child, is adored and worshipped in a thousand and one ways. This is a country that begins in the highest Alps of Europe and stretches a long reach south to within just a few miles of the African coast. There is little call for imported food. Markets of fresh produce abound, from Rome and Milan to the smallest village in Tuscany or Sicily. Most shoppers look for the vegetables grown close to home, labeled nostrano ('ours' or 'local'). These are always the freshest, cheapest and most trusted.
So why grow your own? Why be bothered to plant a garden? The answer to these questions every gardener knows. Best gets better when you grow your own.