Some men bring their wives a dozen long-stemmed roses when they want to express their affection. Dr. Guy Esposito digs deep for the perfect gifts for his wife, Italian chef Mary Ann Esposito, in his own way. He literally digs into the ground for fragrant bundles of basil.
Or he plucks tomatoes from the neat rows of vines in his herb and vegetable garden, set on a hill behind their southern New Hampshire home. And swoon she does.
Most people know Mary Ann. For 19 years, she’s been hosting Ciao Italia, the longest-running cooking program on television, and she’s working on her 11th cookbook (due out in early 2009). So if you know Mary Ann, you know she’s a stickler for good ingredients.
“I’m beyond lucky to have this garden in the summer,” she says, looking at Guy, her husband of 42 years. “We live off it. We also spend a good amount of time drying ingredients, pickling, making sauces, and freezing things, so in March when there’s ice out on the Oyster River, we can have beautiful pesto or tomato soup, bright and tasty with Guy’s vegetables.
“Guy has tried just about everything,” she continues. “He even grew artichokes. He always asks me what I want, but he already knows. He’s like a kid at Christmas when the seeds come in the mail from Italy. Three types of basil: Genovese, Napoletano, and Sicilian. I’ll use the smaller Genovese for pesto — the leaves are sweeter — and the larger Napoletano for stuffing.”
“I grow 50 to 60 tomato plants,” adds Guy. “As many as eight varietals — Redortas, San Marzanos, Brandywines — you name it. They ‘come in’ at different times during the summer, so Mary Ann has lots of choices, flavors, colors. Some are for sauces, some are for drying, and some are for salads. Same with the peppers, eggplants, squashes, beans, cucumbers, onions, fennel, and lettuces. There’s always something ready to cook and eat.
“We’re Italian,” says Guy, “and the garden is an integral part of being Italian. You grow your own things — it’s very nurturing. Spending time in the garden is also very meditative. There’s a mindfulness and a ‘letting go’ to the work that purges your mind. It’s also about being self-sufficient and responsible. It’s about food, and you need a good source for the food you put on your table.”
Guy is a pragmatic man, and his garden is a carefully laid-out grid that maximizes space for the seedlings, which he fosters under grow lights beginning in late winter. “There’s a lot of work early on,” he explains. “Mulching, testing the soil, getting the plants in the ground, weeding, training tomatoes, and at the end of the season with harvesting. But through most of the summer, it only takes me about two hours a week.” And, by the way, it’s a garden free of pesticides.