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The Most Beautiful Garden I Never Saw

I’ve seen many lovely gardens, private and public, but for me, the most beautiful garden of all is one I never saw. Described to me by my mother, it was the garden surrounding Villino Riccardo, her childhood country house on the outskirts of Palermo, beneath Monte Pellegrino. On weekends and in the summer, her family would head there, to le falde , the area at the foot of the mountain just before it begins its dramatic rise. My mother was born at Villino Riccardo.

The villa was named in memory of one of my great-grandmother’s children, who died in infancy in the city house in Palermo. In a tragic moment, the baby slipped from the arms of a housekeeper while she leaned over a balcony to pull up the panierino , the small basket attached to a rope used to ferry purchases sold by traveling vendors--wild greens, roasted seeds and nuts--to the upper floors of palazzi in Palermo; she had been lifting a newspaper up in the basket. Antonia, my great-grandmother, named the country villa after her son, to honor and remember him.

Nearby was Piazza Ranchibile. The winding path that led to the top of Monte Pellegrino began here, and this is where pilgrims to the shrine of Santa Rosalia would begin their journey on foot--the path predating the road that was eventually built to the Church of Santa Rosalia, patron saint of Palermo.

Our family’s villino was situated on a very narrow, unpaved country road surrounded by other villas, all hidden behind high walls. A large shady fig tree grew just inside the tall iron gates that faced the road. From the gate a serpentine path lead to the front door--no driveway existed since automobiles had not yet taken over the streets. Next door were the La Barberas, who later would become a part of my mother’s family--Pietro La Barbera married my mother’s Zia (Aunt) Rubina. The family on the other side of the villino were the Jacchs--my mother’s Zia Savina would one day marry Giovanni Jacchs. Across the street lived a music professor who gave piano lessons to my mother’s aunts in both their country and city homes. From the villino you could hear the sounds of Professore Ferrara’s piano adrift on the air.

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Villino Riccardo was two stories high, with the bedrooms on the second floor. On one exterior wall was a chiocciola , a spiral staircase forged of iron with three landings. From the tiny top landing, really just an observation post, one could see villas and gardens, miles of orange groves and the sea. Standing at the top landing, with room enough for only one, you could feel cool breezes coming in from the aquamarine sea that glistened on the horizon.

Then there was the garden. This was a Sicilian garden: no grass, just the cultivation of plants, sun-baked earth and crushed stones. Threading through the garden were gravel pathways bordered with pansies. A sparkling fountain refreshed the hot air that in summer was a jumble of intensified scents: Jasmine climbed, aromatic and glorious, over tall garden walls; citronella added its sharp lemon perfume; roses bloomed, exuding the fragrance of tea, berries and citrus; and carnations gave off their pungent spiced scent. Added to the dizzying mix were the sweet oils of mint and basil.

A banana tree grew in the garden, which bore fruit that would be fried in olive oil. There were trees with tiny apples and a pear tree with fruit as small as thimbles. There were susine --plums, pale-gold and rich-tasting--and peaches and apricots. During vendemmia --the grape harvest--the pergolas would be laden with bunches of dusty grapes. On one side of the villa, the gardener planted all kinds of vegetables--tomatoes, broccoli, chayote (called centinaia ), which grew over a trellised arbor creating a canopy of leaves and dappled light, from which dangled hundreds of pale green fruit.

For my mother, the villino held the special memories of childhood--the scapacavallo (a little pony cart that she would ride in with her father at her side, up and down the dusty country lanes), and a small, delicately crafted wicker chair made especially for her at her grandfather’s factory, where fine pieces of wicker furniture were made. She carried the chair with her around the garden and inside the house and allowed no one else to sit in it.

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Into this dream came the reality of war. At the beginning of the war, Villino Riccardo was rented out to a photographer; he photographed my mother at the age of 14--hand-tinted photographs of a radiant girl with golden hair, wearing a necklace of tiny shells and a dress colored verde petrolio , a deep blue-green color popular at the time. This photograph now rests on our piano.

In the rental contract drawn up by my great-grandmother (nicknamed l’avvocatessa , the lady lawyer--one of her husbands had been a lawyer as well as consul to Denmark), every tree and shrub in the garden was counted. The photographer maintained Villino Riccardo beautifully except for one major transgression: His gardener cultivated the flowers, pruned the trees and raked the gravel paths, but in a moment of folly, the fig tree was cut down. This caused Antonia to have a fit, since cutting down anything in the garden required her permission. She was so furious that she was ready to take the photographer to court!

During the war, my family went to the villino only occasionally, to visit their tenant and keep an eye on the property--the fig tree was the only garden casualty. After espresso and conversation, he would go into the garden and gather a bouquet of huge white and yellow chrysanthemums, to give to my mother and her grandmother to take to San Martino, a small cemetery near the villino , where family members are buried (these chrysanthemums were never brought into the house).

The area where the villa stands has now become part of the urban sprawl surrounding the old city of Palermo; the garden is only a memory. All that remains of Villino Riccardo as it was is a snapshot faded to soft brown: There is my mother at age 4, seated in her little wicker chair, her mother and father, her aunts and uncles, their friends from the neighboring villas, all dressed in the style of the ‘20s--bobbed hair on the young women and graceful lines of summer dresses; the men dressed in linen pants and glowing white shirts--playful and smiling in a Sicilian garden.

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I’ve looked at this picture and thought about this garden a thousand times. I’ve smelled the warm, fleshy summer roses and seen the carpet of cool fragrant Parma violets that bloom in February. I’ve watched the water in the little fountain glint in the sun. I’ve listened to the crunch of gravel beneath my feet and breathed in the erotic scent of orange blossoms hanging in the still air. It’s the most beautiful garden I’ve never seen.

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In late summer, my mother’s fig tree is full of fruit. This fig tree was my father’s pride--he would jealously stand guard over the figs, watching them, chasing away birds, waiting for the moment the fruits mature.

Figs ripen all at once when the weather turns hot and sultry. Overnight, the hard green knobs of fruit turn into plump little purple-black bundles dusted with pale - blue bloom. Inside, the flesh is mauve-colored and honey-sweet. When you pick figs, a milk runs from their stems, a white chalky fluid that makes your fingers sticky--a small price to pay for the voluptuous pleasure they offer.

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Figs plucked from the tree when they are fully ripened beg to be eaten out of hand. But if you have an abundance of fresh figs, try this exquisite fig salad. The dressing of olive oil, citrus juices and honey turns rosy-pink, tinted by the purple skin of the figs.

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FIG SALAD WITH WALNUTS AND MINT 12 ripe figs 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 teaspoon honey 1/3 cup raw walnut halves, very coarsely broken up 1/3 cup roughly chopped mint leaves Freshly ground pepper

Cut figs into quarters and place on serving platter. Combine olive oil, lemon juice and honey in small bowl. Beat with fork.

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Sprinkle walnuts and mint over figs. Drizzle with dressing and toss very gently. Add dash pepper over top. Let stand few minutes before serving. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

242 calories; 3 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 2.26 grams fiber.

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Chayote grows in Sicily, where they call it centinaia, or zucchini-by-the-hundreds. The name refers to the abundant amount of fruit the vines produce. Chayote is similar in shape and size to a pear, with tender skin and mild sweet flesh. In this recipe, the chayote cooks in a fresh sauce of tomatoes and onions and is served with a sprinkling of torn basil leaves.

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CHAYOTE SQUASH PICCHI-PACCHI STYLE 1 1/2 pounds chayote 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1 onion, finely diced Salt Freshly ground pepper 2 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped Handful basil leaves

Trim away any bruised portions of chayote and cut into 1-inch dice.

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Place olive oil and onion in medium skillet and saute over low heat until onion turns pale gold. Add chayote and season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss in oil and cook about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and season to taste with salt. Cook over medium-low heat until chayote is just tender and tomatoes have thickened into sauce. Before serving, tear basil leaves into fragments and sprinkle over top. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

181 calories; 87 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 14 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.71 grams fiber.

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A sauce inspired by the tastes of Sicily. Refreshing in hot weather, it requires no cooking.

SICILIAN-STYLE SUMMER PASTA WITH TOMATOES, MINT AND ALMONDS 3 large garlic cloves 1/2 cup raw unsalted almonds, skinned 1 cup mint leaves 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus extra for drizzling 2 pounds red, ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into small dice Salt Freshly ground pepper 1 pound imported dried spaghetti

By hand or in food processor, finely chop garlic, almonds and mint. Transfer ingredients to deep serving bowl. Add olive oil and stir. Add tomatoes and toss gently. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss.

In large saucepan cook spaghetti in abundant salted boiling water. When al dente, drain well. Transfer to bowl and toss with sauce. If desired, drizzle with more olive oil to taste. Toss again. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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Each of 4 servings contains about:

809 calories; 99 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 38 grams fat; 101 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams protein; 2.67 grams fiber.


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