Peanuts in Umbria
Wandering over the Agri Umbra agricultural tradeshow last year we spotted a packet of ‘peanut seeds’ from the renowned Franchi seed company. Grow peanuts in your backyard? Well, why not. Not a lot of people know but there has been a link between Italy and peanuts.
In America in the 1870’s peanuts grown in Southern States were sold in the Northern ones by mostly Italians. At a certain point pedlars were provided with a pushcart and bag of peanuts on credit. They were required to sell a certain amount of peanuts within a given time. If they failed to sell enough their cart was taken away and they were not provided any more peanuts. Commision for the agents was about 25% with the vendors pocketing the rest.
The peanut business was so successful that at a certain point Italians were recruited to come to America with the specific intend to sell peanuts for a living. For some this venture was extremely fruitful as can be distilled from the following description of a peanut vendor buying a house at an auction in New York. “A dingy dwarfish specimen of Italian immigration, who began his mercantile course as a proprietor of a pea-nut stand in the classic region of Park Street.” When the peanut stand operator won the bid, “the unwashed swarm of polylingual fellow citizens applauded wildly as he coolly drew out a dirty red pocket handkerchief, and began to count out from his purchase money, which he supposed must be paid on the spot”.
Even the famous Planters Peanut Company, one of the first – if not the first – to sell shelled and salted peanuts en gros was founded by two Italians. They developed their own method of blanching whole roasted peanuts, doing away with the troublesome hulls and skins.
In Italy itself cultivation of peanuts was abandoned in 1970’s due to mechanization problems. The high point was in 1961 with 5600 hectares under crop. I read that a resurge is on its way but the site of the growers peanut growing association is not very lively.
Our peanut harvest was modest but I was quite surprised with quality given the fact that they were grown in poor soil. We prepared them the chinese way, boiled with star anise and ginger which resulted in quite a nice snack. Unfortunately peanuts in Italy are very expensive and good quality peanut butter is hard to come by which is why ours comes from the Netherlands where small producers make superb nut butters. Maybe we’ll grow them again next year and see if we can turn them into a tasty spread.