Recapturing lemon-grove lunches

Summer tomatoes and basil harvest makes for the perfect Pizza Margherita.

Credit: Carol Pope

My family has a very special memory from a long-ago holiday we took together to Southern Italy.  We rented a modest apartment for one week where we did much of our own cooking, however our daily rambles eventually led us to a family-owned trattoria where linen-covered tables were lined below the fruit-laden branches of a lemon grove and the amazing aromas coming from the outdoor brick oven made it impossible to pass by. 

We ordered Pizza Margherita, and while it was being baked, the kids explored the tropical orchard and were invited to pick some of the aromatic lemons by the beaming husband-and-wife proprietors, who welcomed us while their teenage son manned the oven.

Chris’s Pizza Margharita recipe

Learn how to make this super simple pizza of basil, tomatoes, mozzarella and olive oil.

Suddenly, just seconds from the oven, the still-bubbling pizzas arrived at our table with a
hearty “Buon Appetito!” from the young chef. For several minutes after that, not another word was whispered at our table as we took our first few bites and were literally dumbstruck by the flavours. When we were able to speak again, we agreed that a daily lunch here for the duration of our stay was now mandatory.  

We have been trying to recapture our lemon-grove afternoons ever since.

As a homeschooling family, years ago we asked our children to take on the responsibility of preparing one complete dinner each for the family every week. In addition to learning how to cook, they would pick up some math and measurement skills and learn how to plan ahead with food shopping and preparation.

Our son, Chris (who upon our departure to Italy had been decidedly skinny and was almost plump upon his return), was still dreaming about his lemon-grove lunches and very clear about what his meal contribution would be: Pizza Margherita.

Now 19, and a 10-year veteran of the art of pizza, Chris has expanded his repertoire: Spinach and Goat Cheese with Sliced Garlic and Smoked Salmon with Capers are two of several gourmet combinations. But still the favourite in our house, prepared weekly 52 times a year, regardless of what other combinations are also whipped up, is Pizza Margherita.

In the summer, when our greenhouse is bursting with basil and tomatoes, Pizza Margherita is a natural; however the challenge has been to find a reliable source of basil during the chilly months (frozen basil puree just doesn’t cut it). Hence our recent experiment: Using a heating coil and an indoor raised bed, could we grow basil in our greenhouse before the hot months of summer?

The answer is a resounding yes! This year, since early May, we have been enjoying a sea of basil.  Enough for Pizza Margherita, omelettes, soups, basil and tomato salads, sandwiches, and despite our constant plucking of leaves the basil grows higher. Soon we’ll make pesto, and any bare spots that result from our basil gluttony will be replanted from our jumbo-sized bag of seed.

So while I have yet to grow my family a lemon grove, the basil is now bountiful at our house. As for how far through the year we can push this abundance, I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, stay tuned for a step-by-step on growing your own sea of basil.