It’s a well-known fact, produce is of better quality and taste when in season.
Though Italians have cooking and eating seasonally radicated in their DNA, lately mass distribution and globalization have confused these rhythmic, natural guidelines, making the calendar distinction on our plate a little fuzzy.
Here is a list of what fruit and vegetables are in season in Italy in March.
Sorrel’s sharp, vinegary flavor – the Italian name acetosella derives from the Italian word aceto for ‘vinegar’ – can be served in soups, sauces and to give some kick to spring salads, soups, or cooked in butter with fish and egg dishes. Sorrel is best from mid March to September. It’s easy to grow from seed in your garden too, or in a large pot.
The wonderful artichokes Rome is best known for are here and we are making the best of it! Roman Romaneschi and violetti from Puglia varieties – the former being the large, round globes with more choke, while the latter have more tapered, coriacous leaves – are everywhere, market stalls are spilling with them and restaurant menus (especially in Rome) feature artichokes cooked in many ways. The sensational mammole bloom in April/May but, given the extraodinarily warm winter we’ve been having in Italy, we’re experiencing the peak of the season earlier this year. Take advantage of the carciofo, as this is the absolute best time to employ them in the kitchen.
Brussel sprouts are related to cabbage – they even look like a miniature, compact version – but they boast a sweeter, more delicate, nutty flavor. They make their appearance on market stalls between October and early April and grow in multiple rows along a thick central stalk. A true autumn and winter staple, the sprouts can be mixed with fried guanciale (cured pig’s jowl) and maple syrup and black pepper as a nice seasonal kick that keeps the cold season at bay.
Different varieties of cabbage are available all year round. The cabbage, or brassica, family is huge, and includes everything from the familiar red, white or green varieties with heavy heads of tightly packed leaves, to cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts as well as bok choi, popular in Asian cookery. Cabbage itself comes in many forms, and shapes can be flat, conical or round, the heads compact or loose, and the leaves curly or plain. The round, crinkle-leafed Savoy cabbage is considered culinarily superior. Essential to good soups or a bollito misto (boiled meats and veggies), cabbage lends a nutty, rich flavor to all it comes in contact with.
At its best from mid December through to mid April, cauliflower comes in many other colors besides creamy white, various purple shades, dark brown and bright yellow. In Italy we have several varieties, the round white head, whose stalk and green thick outer leaves are discarded, and the unique pointy green Romanesco head, perfect example of fractal imagery in nature, with its branched floret making a logarithmic spiral, repeating itself in self-similarity at varying scales.
Super food par excellence, cavolo nero (lancinato kale, Tuscan kale, black kale or dinosaur) is the popular loose-leafed cabbage from Tuscany whose leaves are a very dark green, almost black, with pleasantly tangy, bitter flavor and a sweet aftertaste. It is a popular ingredient in many classic Italian soups like Ribollita or Zuppa di Magro and is essential for Minestrone.
The unsung hero of the vegetable world is available year round but is at its best from September to April. Knobby, odd-shaped celeriac is recognizable on the market stall as the weird root with rhino-tough skin. The surprise is the subtle, celery-like flavor, with nutty overtones. Try it as mash, in big-flavored, slow-cooked stews, or in its classic form, and as they do en France, as a remoulade.
Also known as endive, or Belgian endive, chicory is a forced crop, grown in complete darkness, which accounts for its snow white, yellow-tipped leaves. It has a distinctive, tapered shape, about 4 inches long, and the crisp leaves have a mildly bitter flavor. Available all year round, but the Italian season is from January to mid March.
At its best from November to March, this vegetable is not truly an artichoke but a lumpy, brown-skinned tuber that often resembles a ginger root. Contrary to what the name implies, this vegetable has nothing to do with Jerusalem. Its name is rather a distortion of the Italian word “girasole” – sunflower, a variety of which the topinambur is the root. The white flesh of Topinambur as we call it here, is nutty, sweet and crunchy and is a good source of iron. The Piedmontese peel it, cut it in chunks and brown it in butter or dip it raw in bagna càuda.
Although more closely related to garlic, leeks taste (more) like a mild onion but with a hint of sweetness. Available all year round, but at their best from September to March, leeks are very versatile and work well cooked in various recipes or as a side dish.
Lettuce is available all year round in a vast number of varieties, either crisp or floppy. Mainly eaten raw in salads, though Italians add lettuce to soups or braise them as a side dish. Among the most commonly available lettuces in Italy during winter are curly endive (Frisée), Escarole endive, and Catalogna endive (in Rome called puntarelle).
Radicchio’s distinctive red and white leaves are a true hallmark of winter in Italy. Either tapered or shaped like a small cabbage, radicchio in Italy is used both raw in salads, or grilled, braised or cooked in risotto. Radicchio comes in several varieties, the most famous being Rosso di Treviso, which can be either ‘Precoce’, fleshy red leaves with white ribs that form a compact bunch, or ‘Tardivo’, harvested in the later part of winter, which has much more pronounced ribs and splayed leaves, is more flavorful, with stronger bitter accents.
Technically rhubarb is a vegetable but its thick, fleshy and watermelon-colored stalks are treated as a fruit. Tart flavored, rhubarb should be cooked with plenty of sugar, and is perfect in pies with both ginger and strawberries. Note: Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid, which is poison, so should never be eaten; so be sure to cut them off and discard.
Popeye’s favorite greens have leaves which can be either flat or slightly ruffled, and are a bright green when young, deepening to a more intense forest green when older. The bitter flavor is distinctive and particularly complements dairy products and eggs. The milder, young leaves, locally called ‘spinacino’ can be eaten raw in salad, while the older ones are usually steamed, but careful, spinach has one of the shortest cooking times of all vegetables.
You can buy winter turnips all year-round, although peak season is from October to mid February. Creamy-white with lovely purple, red or greenish upper part where the taproot has been exposed to sunlight. Before the arrival of the potato, turnips were one of the main sources of sustenance for Italian peasants. Turnip leaves or ‘greens’ (locally called cime di rapa) can also be eaten boiled, steamed, stir-fried. Orecchiette with Turnip greens are a typical Puglia specialty.
Available all year round, Italian apples are at their best from September through April. Cinnamony flavored and ugly-looking Annurche apples are a delight, and gourmands await winter months in order to indulge in these little mouthfuls of happiness. Ugly food is often the best tasting food… Just a reminder.
Better catch them while they last, which is a small window between November and early April. This sweetest variety of tangerine is sweet and tangy, contains seeds and is recognisable by its loose, baggy pale orange skin. Mandarin orange segments can be eaten on their own or dipped in melted chocolate. The zest can be candied or used to make “mandarinetto” liqueur, a close relative of limoncello. Mandarins originated in China.
At their best between January and April, lemons are one of the most versatile fruits around, and contain high levels of Vitamin C. The best lemons for juicing or using for wedges are those with a smooth, thin skin, while the best for zesting are those with thicker, knobbly skin, which tend to be larger. Always buy unwaxed lemons (shops should state this clearly), especially if you’ll be using them for zesting. If you can’t find unwaxed produce, scrub the lemons thoroughly with sodium bicarbonate before zesting. Tip: to extract the maximum amount of juice, make sure lemons are at room temperature.
One of the best-known citrus fruits, oranges are at peak season between January and the end of April. Sweet varieties include the Navel orange, which is named after the navel-like bulge at one end, which contains a tiny, baby fruit inside. They are seedless, easy to peel, and have a juicy, sweet orange flesh. Valencia oranges have smooth, thin skins, with very few pips, and are particularly juicy. The skins of sanguinelle (blood oranges) are blushed with red, and the flesh ranges from golden to a deep ruby, and they are juicy and aromatic. The tarocco orange variety – another blood orange – is one of the world’s most popular oranges because of its sweetness and juiciness. It has the highest Vitamin C content of any orange variety grown in the world, mainly on account of the fertile soil surrounding Mount Etna where it is originally from.
Pomegranates have always been highly prized for their flavor, but their recent emergence as a highly nutritious superfood, packed with antioxidant vitamins, has made them even more popular. Available as the colder months set in, pomegranates appear in Italian markets in November in their shiny orbs, blushed with red or yellow. Inside, scores of edible tiny white seeds are held in jewel-like ruby sacs of sweet, juicy flesh. The sacs themselves are packed tightly in a bitter, pale yellow pith.
What fruits and vegetables are in season where you live?
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.