Snapshots from Italy: The Mother Of All Carrots
Editor's note: Serious Eats correspondent Carey Jones, eating her way around Italy, will be reporting back from Rome, Bologna, Tuscany, and Puglia.
This is, without question, the best carrot I have ever eaten.
As foods go, individual carrots aren’t that memorable, any more than particular Yukon Golds are memorable. And I say this as a girl who ranks carrots among her very favorite foods. Though I practically lived off of carrot sticks at a low point in my college meal plan days, I’d be hard pressed to recall a single, specific carrot I’d ever eaten.
Until this one, in the seaside town of Polignano a Mare in Puglia. Sipping an aperitivo at Ristorante da Tuccino, one of the region’s most acclaimed seafood restaurants, I wandered over to a quiet display—the produce we’d be eating that night. I recognized chicory and fennel, fava beans and zucchini blossoms. And between them lay an array of rainbow-colored carrots.
I broke a purple one in half, to find rings of white and orange and yellow. What were these curious things? Carrots in their natural state. The vegetable, I was told, originated in present-day Afghanistan and moved with migration and trade to the Mediterranean; these carrots were purple on the outside with white and yellow within. But in the sixteenth century, a Dutch farmer used a few mutant, orange-colored carrots to selectively breed an entire orange strain—in honor of the reigning House of Orange. (True story.)
So these were as close to “original” carrots as I was likely to find. But how did they taste? I plucked one from the dish and took a nibble. And, quite literally, gasped. It was crunchier, and juicer, and a hundred times more flavorful than any carrot I had ever encountered. Its crisp sweetness seemed almost akin to that of an apple. It made other carrots seem starchy and bitter in comparison. And I couldn't help but reach for another.
Just what made these carrots so good? I could invent half a dozen reasons—they grew in rich sandy soil, they weren’t bred for a uniform color, they were fed by the salty sea breeze, they were likely just pulled from the ground outside. Any one of these might be true. But ultimately, it was impossible to know. And though a staggering spread of oysters and sea urchins awaited in the other room, I couldn’t tear myself away from the rainbow carrot table.