Next to its neighbors, spring and summer, autumn in Florence seems much less attractive. But besides its lower prices, shorter museum lines, and break from the sweltering heat, fall is when Italian nature says, “My year’s work is complete. Enjoy.” It’s harvest time. And this ripe occasion has got the high season green with envy. Here are our 10 favorite things that autumn serves up best:
Grated, black truffles over tagliatelle pasta
1. I Tartufi (EE tar-TOO-fee / Truffles) Italian truffles are not made of chocolate. They’re actually a type of mushroom that grows underground. There are two main varieties: black, which look like clumps of dirt; and white, which resemble unearthed mini-potatoes. Both are a good lesson on not judging by outward appearance; these ugly fungi taste divine. Black truffles sell for upwards of $500 a pound. And while the white variety can go for more than $2,000, a Chinese casino-tycoon once paid $330,000 for a 3.3 pounder. Lucky for us non-billionaires, a tiny bit of truffle is extremely pungent. Eating them grated over the top of pasta, eggs, meat, even pizza, is enough to experience their creamy, earthy flavor in its entirety. A typical, fall plate of tagliattele al tartufo (truffle pasta) in Italy costs a reasonable €10-€20.
2. Il Vino Novello(EEL VEE-noh noh-VEHL-loh / New Wine) Vino Novello is the first wine from the vendemmia (grape harvest) to reach stores. Unlike other types that have to be aged, this wine uses carbonic maceration to warp speed the fermentation process. Whole grapes are put in a tank with carbon dioxide, and fruit becomes wine in just six weeks. Rich purple in color, vino novelloisn’t structured or tannic but fresh and fruity. And this wine doesn’t get better with time; it’s best to drink within six months of purchase. You can find it on supermarket shelves in Italy around the first week of November. The perfect pairing of fall’s fruits of labor is Vino Novello and roasted chestnuts, an Italian tradition.
Look for autumn “olio nuovo” signs in supermarkets; that’s the olive oil you want.
3. L’Olio Nuovo (LOHL-ee-oh NOO-oh-voh / New Olive Oil) and Le Olive (LEH oh-LEE-veh / Olives) La Raccolta delle Olive (the olive harvest) takes place in October and November. Around this time, bottles of lime green olio nuovo start appearing on Italy’s supermarket shelves. Buy one! Trying new olive oil is like discovering fine wine. You happily enjoy the average until, one day, you experience the best. Your world changes. There’s no going back. Olio nuovo is a intense, chartreuse explosion of flavor and aroma, with an almost spicy kick. It can’t even be compared to the taste of an older bottle, and it only costs a few euros more. While you’re at it, change the way you think about olives, too, and bring home a few olive verdi dolci sotto ranno (sweet, lye-cured, green olives). Lye is a water and ash mixture that takes away an olive’s bitterness. So, there will be no scrunched noses or sour expressions when you bite into one of these nutty, almost butter-like beauties (but go slowly, they have pits). To find them amongst other olive varieties, just bag the biggest ones you see. The best olive dolciare bright, emerald green and gigantic – the size of little limes!
Fresh porcini mushrooms
4. I Funghi Porcini (EE FOON-ghee pohr-CHEE-nee / Porcini Mushrooms) You can enjoy dried porcini mushrooms in Italy year round, but fresh ones pop up in the fall. Much meatier than their Champignon cousins, they have a richer, earthy flavor and smoother, creamy texture that’s all wild. Although porcini are sold commercially, they’re very difficult to cultivate. When you see them at markets or on menus, know they’re probably there because a hard-working Italian actually went out into the woods and searched for them. Forest to table You’ll find these fungi chopped up in soups, risotto and pasta; and as toppings for pizza and crostini (toasted bread starters). But they’re also good enough to stand alone. Porcini fritti (fried) are served both as antipasti (appetizers) and contorni(side dishes). Convenient. Because when you try them once, you just might want to order them twice.
The inside of a just-picked green fig
5. I Fichi (EE FEE-kee / Figs)Italians couldn’t believe I had never tried a fresh fig, and I couldn’t believe I was supposed to eat the bulb they pulled off a tree in front of me. But if you’reAmerican like me, your fig experience probably ends with “newton.” And that’s a shame because fresh figs are…fun. Seriously, they look like baby green or purple garlics, you peel them like a banana, and when you take a sticky bite, tiny seeds and all, you get a mouthful sugar-sand fruit that dissolves on your tongue. You can get fig jams in any season, but ripe ones make a short appearance in stores and markets when they fall off the branch around September. You can mix the pulp with yogurt or ricotta cheese, or master the salty-sweet Italian pairing of figs with prosciutto (cured ham) or salami – all ways are absolutely delicious.
6. Le Castagne or I Marroni (LEH cah-STAH-nyeh or EE mah-ROH-nee / Chestnuts) and Il Castagnaccio (EEL kah-stahn-YAHCH-cho / Chestnut Flour Cake) You don’t have to wait for Christmas for “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” Castagne in Italy are out in full force in the fall. Pick up a bag at the market to make in the oven at home, or get them ready-to-eat on the street. Autumn vendors sell 3 euro cones of roasted chestnuts from every corner. Italian bakeries boast their own take on chestnuts: castagnaccio. This typical, fall Tuscan cake is flat and thin, with the density of a brownie. Made with chestnut flour and topped with sprigs of rosemary and pine nuts, it usually doesn’t contain sugar. To sweeten the deal, castagnaccio is best accompanied by vino novello, vin santo (italian dessert wine), or miele di castagno (chestnut honey!). The latter is available in stores all year long, along with crema di marrone(chestnut cream), which can be used like jelly (and found on the same aisle) and is often scented with vanilla.
Autumn chestnuts can be ground into flour for making “Castagnaccio,” or roasted whole
7. Schiacciata con l’Uva (skeeach-CHA-tah AHL LOO-vah / Grape Tuscan Bread) and L’Uva (LOO-vah / Grapes)
Giant, ripe and crunchy, fall green grapes
Wine isn’t the only thing that comes from the grape harvest; there’s the fruit, too! Italian grapes in season are all-around larger, juicier, and crunchier than their greenhouse-raised counterparts. If you want to go gigantic, try uva fragola (strawberry grapes). They don’t taste like strawberries but are just as big and brilliant in color. Fall grapes are also the main ingredient in Schiacciata con l’Uva. Pillowy, Tuscan bread is baked with sweetened, black wine grapes and olive oil. The result is similar to a blueberry muffin cake with a crunch (Italian uva are all natural, seeds in). A tasty reminder that not all grapes in Italy are for drinking.
8. Le Zucche (LEH ZOO-keh / Squash or Pumpkin)
Squash in Italy is rarely eaten alone, and pumpkin isn’t just for pies. Instead, both are the key ingredients in savory-sweet autumn specialties. My absolute favorite thing I have ever eaten in the entire country is tortelli di zucca (pasta parcels stuffed with pumpkin or squash). The naturally sweet filling is mixed with nutmeg (or even amaretto cookies!), and the homemade pasta is covered in melted butter and sprinkled with salt. If you’re still eating on the go, this menu item is the perfect introduction to the concept of Slow Food. Every bite is worthy of reflection. Risotto alla Zucca (rice with pumpkin or squash) is another autumn masterpiece. Sweet, buttery squash makes a rich and creamy sauce to which salty parmesan cheese or pancetta (thick-cut bacon) is perfectly paired. If your time in Italy is coming to an end, order up either dish and you’ll be back every fall.
9. I Cachi or I Diosperi (EE CAHK-ee or EE dee-OHS-pehr-ee / Persimmons) There are two kinds of persimmons in Italy: hard and soft. The former resemble orange bell peppers, can be sliced and eaten whole, and taste like a brown-sugary combination between an apple and a date. They’re best chopped up in salads or salsas. The latter have a completely unique consumption experience. Cut them open and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. Eat the pulp on it’s own, as a gelato topping, or swirled into fresh ricotta cheese. The consistency is mostly jelly-like, but every now and then you’ll end up with a tongue in your mouth (that’s not your own). Soft persimmons contain about six lingue(tongues), that get their name from their shape and have the texture of a gummy bear. This is a real adventurer’s fruit, an undiscovered territory full of surprises, and exactly why it’s my fall favorite.
This is what persimmons look like. (Hard on the left, soft on the right)
10. I Fichi d’India (EE FEE-kee DEEN-dee-ah / Prickly Pears)
The cactus fruit color scheme
Translated as “Indian figs,” the prickly pear name in either language leave one guessing, what exactly, one is. And when you find out, how to eat it becomes the next mystery. Cactus fruits leave their fans in a somewhat spiny situation. Their teardrop-shaped, desert-sunset-colored skin is seemingly smooth. It’s actually covered with hundreds of hair-like barbs that cling to whatever they come into contact with (read: hands) and feel like invisible needles. But with a little caution, you can enjoy their raspberry-watermelon flavored center. When skinning a prickly pear, use tongs or cover your hand with a towel. You can also soak the fruit in cold water for a few minutes, move it around with a spoon or tongs to remove the spines. Cut off both ends and slice the skin down the middle, peeling it off to get to the pulp. It’s full of seeds, but they’re edible! If Italians eat them in a culture where peel-on fruit is inedible, you don’t have to worry. Put their super-sweet, magenta juice in a prickly pear martini and fall into autumn right.
– Whitney Richelle (All Photos © Whitney Richelle)