The quarrel starts over slices of sweet pumpkin, served hot and drizzled with olive oil and herbs. The women put down their bobbins and lace to juggle the bright orange wedges in both hands, blowing on their fingertips to keep them from burning. They shout at each other in lilting, vowel-heavy Italian while cradling the warty rinds and nibbling the rich, meaty flesh.
The argument, of course, was sparked because not everyone got some of the pumpkin.
This scene from the play Le Baruffe Chiozzotte, first performed in 1762 and written by Venetian Carlo Goldoni, depicts an enticing heirloom cultivar called ‘Marina di Chioggia,’ or zucca barucca. The play was set some 20 miles south of Venice in the small Italian fishing hamlet of Chioggia (kee-oh-juh), a city crisscrossed by canals and bridges and sometimes referred to as “Venice’s Little Sister.” More than 300 years later, cream-colored stone houses with red roofs still line Chioggia’s placid waterways. Old men in flat caps still mend fishing nets. On market days, roasted ‘Marina di Chioggia’ is still sold by vendors who call out “Zucca barucca! Barucca calda!”
When and where this unusually lumpy pumpkin picked up the names zucca barucca and zucca marina is unclear. Zucca simply means squash. Barucca might be derived from verucca, the Italian word for warts, because the pumpkin’s skin is knobby gray-green. Others claim the word is of Hebrew origin, from baruch or “holy,” because it’s possible that Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition to the ghetto in Venice brought the pumpkins with them as a winter staple.
And the marina part? “You’ll just have to resign yourself to accepting a certain level of uncertainty,” laughs Teresa Lust. Lust is a culinary historian and Italian language teacher whose extensive collection of antique recipe books led her to collaborate with Harry Paris, senior research scientist with the research arm of Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Together, they’ve traced the origin of zucchini breeding to Milan in about 1855.
Names and nomenclature often frustrate food historians attempting to identify fruit or vegetable cultivars in early Italian recipes. Until about 1870, modern Italy was comprised of warring city-states, and less than 10 percent of the population spoke the language we call Italian. “The literature is so confused because people gave different names to the same items and the same name to different items depending on when and where they lived,” explains Paris. It didn’t help that pumpkins and squashes came to Europe from the New World. Early chefs often referred to all three species of New World squashes as zucca marina. They didn’t differentiate between Cucurbita pepo (think zucchinis), Cucurbita moschata, (including tromboncinos), and Cucurbita maxima (such as ‘Marina di Chioggia’). Squashes were beautiful, tasty, and exotic, so Italy’s wealthy quickly brought them into their gardens and onto their dinner tables. (Learn more about the history of squash in Squash On the Scene: The Evolution of Cucurbits ).
Domenico Romoli’s instructional manual for house stewards in 1560 listed zucca marina in autumn and winter recipes for four-course daily menus. The list on Friday, Sept. 16, features a second course of zucca marina, fried with snails and smothered in a classic green sauce of parsley, olive oil, capers, anchovies, and garlic. For dessert, Romoli lists zucca marina cake with walnuts and fennel. The meal on Monday, Dec. 20, starts with tuna belly and zucca marina minestrone. On Thursday, March 18, zucca marina was stewed in green sauce with lemon and a side of strawberries. Sound delicious? “Nobody beats the Italians when it comes to horticulture and the culinary arts — nobody,” asserts Paris.
Bartolomeo Scappi, a famous chef of the Italian Renaissance, dedicated an entire volume of his 1570 international best-seller, Opera dell’arte del cucinare, to fruits and vegetables at a time when Europeans thought of them as peasant food. Scappi was one of the first to differentiate between the squashes, listing five types, including zucca marina, which he blended with almond milk to make a sweet and savory soup.
When, in 1611, a Venetian Protestant named Giacomo Castelvetro fled to England to escape “the furious bite of the cruel and pitiless Roman Inquisition,” he was horrified by the meat-heavy English diet. In homesick hunger, he set about recording the fruits and vegetables of his homeland, along with the proper ways to prepare them. By then, pumpkins were no longer reserved for aristocrats — they were common. “Their popular name is marine pumpkins (zucca marina),” Castelvetro wrote in his 1614 book on Italian fruits, herbs, and vegetables, “perhaps because they are used by inexperienced swimmers, scared of drowning in the sea, who strap a whole dried gourd under their chests to keep them from sinking into the water. Small children learn to swim in the rivers with them. Some gourds are green, some green and yellow, some long, some broad, while others are white and round and flat, which are the best for the noble art of swimming.”
The Italians also had a zucca, the bottle gourd Lagenaria siceraria, which they ate young, pale, and tender, or harvested mature to make drinking vessels. “Originally they would eat [all the squashes] when they were very, very little, sliced up raw,” Lust explains. “They didn’t only wait for them to get ripe and turn a deep golden color in the flesh. They would consume them all as you would consume summer squash today. In Italy, a summer squash or zucchini that’s longer than 4 inches is basically considered to have gone bad.
Alice Formiga, a modern-day researcher at Oregon State University, looks at Renaissance still lifes for clues as to what people were eating. “There are a lot of bumpy green melons that many people have said look like the ‘Marina di Chioggia,’” she says. One source of contention is the murals decorating the Villa Farnesina, a mansion on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome. Between 1515 and 1518, the villa’s wealthy owner commissioned paintings of his garden in such exacting realism that researchers can identify diseases on the apples and melons. The paintings are also the earliest evidence that New World plants, such as corn and squash, were growing in Europe. One section of the murals features round, pumpkin-like fruits that researchers have identified as either ‘Marina di Chioggia’ or ‘Black Rock’ melon. Formiga explains that you can distinguish the cultivar by the stem. “The fruit in the murals has a really thin stem, like a melon, versus a chunky one like a C. maxima, while C. pepo has more of an angular stem…,” she trails off. “It’s really hard to tell, and people often disagree.”
Squashes readily cross-pollinate, so it’s impossible to know if the ‘Marina di Chioggia’ sold along the canals and served in Chioggia’s restaurants today as gnocchi or zucca in saor (fried pumpkin layered with pine nuts and raisins and marinated in vinegar) is exactly the same as the pumpkin from Goldoni’s 18th-century play. (You can try our Squash Gnocchi Recipe with ‘Marina di Chioggia’ or any other cooked pumpkin.) Both Lust and Paris believe that today’s ‘Marina di Chioggia’ is most likely the same, or very similar to, the heirloom pumpkin. By the 18th century, Chioggia’s farmers had learned to isolate their squashes, and Paris believes the cultivar had mostly stabilized because C. maxima species are rarer in Italy than other New World squashes. At least, the description for zucca di Chioggia in Fortunato Luigi Naccari’s 1824 botanical, Flora Veneta, seems to match, but even Naccari speculates about the name. Maybe the name zucca barucca was inspired by the plant’s origins in Jerusalem, he wrote, while “others say the name comes from the goodness and healthfulness of the fruit, which in fact are better than the other species.”
One thing everyone can agree on: ‘Marina di Chioggia’ is a very good pumpkin. Lust points out that some people claim it’s not a pumpkin, but a winter squash. But, she says, “Nobody would argue if you said that the Italians brought la gioia di vivere (joy of life) to the kitchen.”
Species: Cucurbita maxima
Type: Winter squash; turban
Days to maturity: 95 to 100
Average size: 10 to 15 pounds
Storage quality: Good; flavor will improve in storage
Growing conditions: Full sun; allow plenty of room for vines
Lindsay Gasik is a fruit-hunting geek and horticultural tour guide in Malaysia and Thailand. Follow her at Year Of The Durian