"È fresco!"

Story and photography by Doug Oster // photography also by marcus spiske


What we have to learn from the gardeners of italy

Luciana Lyon’s smile lights up the tour bus, and her laugh is infectious. Driver Pasquale Donnarumma deftly maneuvers the nearly impossible hairpin turns above Positano along the Amalfi Coast in Italy. It is my third trip to the country, taking gardeners through villas and exploring the magnificent gardens. Luciana explains to the rest of the group what I learned during my first two days in Italy 12 years ago: “Italians are very skeptical when they go to the market and find fruits or vegetables that are not in season. They might have been imported or grown in a greenhouse with additives, preservatives, and so on. We tend to stay away from those.” A tour manager for Collette Tours who was born in Naples, she points out her hometown from the bus as we head to our next destination. 

As we traverse the country, gardens and farm fields are filled with the last of the fresh artichokes, held high above the gray-green foliage on their sturdy stalks. “Everyone is buying as many artichokes as they can; some people like to freeze them or can them so they can have them for the rest of the season,” Luciana says in her quick-paced English, barely slowing down for a breath. 

As a child growing up in Italy, she enjoyed a mid-August, two-week vacation, and upon return, put the tomato harvest to good use. “We start the process of making the sauce for the winter. It’s a whole family affair, the cousins, aunts, uncles, everybody comes together,” she says with a smile. “All the children have a job.” They make a chunky version and smooth type, with an assembly line of cutting tomatoes into wedges, adding basil, and then garlic. 

When she first visited the States, she realized how different we view produce while discovering a perfect Red Delicious apple in the grocery store. “It’s Snow White’s apple!” she exclaimed at the time. One bite of the shiny fruit introduced her to beautiful, but unfulfilling flavor. “That’s when I knew why Snow White died, it tasted like dirt,” she adds, laughing.

Luciana grew up in a garden filled with seasonal vegetables and enjoyed the huge farm her grandparents ran. She would nap with her sister under the grape vines. “I remember my sister and I would love to climb the cherry trees and make earrings of cherries,” she reminisces.

Luciana translates for Pasquale, who spends two to three months at a time on the road driving, but cherishes time spent at home in Naples with his fruit trees. Born into a farming family, as a child he found gardening a chore, but now, like most gardeners, he finds relaxation in his garden. “I love fruit trees, but I can’t grow the vegetables I would like since I travel so much,” he says via Luciana. He grows apples, hazelnuts, almonds, mandarins, peaches, pears, pomegranates, figs, apricots, and other fruits with many different varieties of each. Pasquale produces enough to feed his extensive family and friends and grows everything naturally without chemicals, like many Italians. He often works all day in the orchard when he’s home, enjoying every moment. As Luciana asks what he gets out of time with the trees, Pasquale goes back and forth with her, using his words and hands to explain what the orchard means to him. “It gives you happiness and pride from the hard work,” he says. “The satisfaction of doing something with your hands, you have the fruits right here as the results.”