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Springtime in Calabria

It’s Primavera, or Spring-time in the less fashionable Italian province of Calabria. This may be my favourite time to visit. August has it’s lovely burning heat, floating about on the sea, and sitting outdoors after long meals and chatting until the early hours. But springtime brings with it wildflowers. And lots of them!

Every year, since I was a teenager, I’ve visited the tiny coastal village of Acquappesa Marina which is about an hour’s drive north of the tiny airport at Lamezia. And every year I’ve drawn here. My drawings led to a collection of jewellery inspired by the place.

This year I took five days away from work in late April to meet up with family, eat some amazingly good Calabrian food and relax.

But in particular I wanted to explore the rich flora which bursts into bloom as soon as the days grow longer and warmer, while the ground is still moist before the southern Mediterranean sun dries everything to a straw coloured crisp.

Seasonality is the backbone of a life here. Each morning we walk down to the nearest small town, Cetraro, to see what the local farmers have to offer. You eat what’s in season… and lots of it. Then you eat the next thing. Right now it’s all artichokes, broad beans and early season chiploli (red onions from Calabria, the best are supposed to come from Tropea). Some locals had foraged for wild asparagus and were selling bunches of weeds for salad, gathered in the hills above the town.

After the best produce of the day is bought, a coffee and Cornetto alla Crema in Mulini.

In August I would head straight for the sea, but now I pack my small ruck sack and set out into the mountains which stretch along the coast here. The Appennino Meridionale. Crumbling towns are perched precariously up in the steep rocky hills above the sea, some of them partially abandoned, while new villages of holiday houses and apartments stretch out on the thin strip between hills and sea, jostling for space with the railway and the autostrada.

I got chatting to an old farmer on one of my expeditions. He suggested I explore an overgrown path leading up along a deep ravine. He gave me handfuls of broad beans to keep me going and I could see a couple of tumble-down ruined houses along the way. The trouble is that I’m torn between forging ahead and stopping to draw the wildlife. It’s better if I go on my own because people get annoyed by my constant distractions as I dash off to investigate a plant or flower.

Some of the plants were familiar, lots of them are new to me. I decided on three main categories; Wildflowers, grasses, and edibles. I love wild food so it’s a special interest to me. For the first time I saw Capers in flower, capparis spinosa. And I met a surly old woman picking the young flower buds for pickling. Further up the path I discovered a beautiful ruined house. It still had it’s mill stones on the ground floor, the rest of it too collapsed to explore so I sat on a crumbling wall and ate raw beans. From here I could see right down to the sea. The hills were damp and green with wild periwinkle and buttercups, borage, fennel and poppies, lots of clovers, vetch and bindweeds. I’m going to have to look a lot of them up. A friend, Ornella, lives in a grand house nearby with a vast old library. She’s sure they have a book about local flora which she’s promised to look out for me.

I wonder if I have enough material to do a Primavera collection some time… maybe I need another visit or two first. I can visit my old ruined house and eat broad beans sitting in the sun looking out onto the mountains and the sea.

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