Spring has come late to Tuscany this year, but in the last week or so, the air has been full of the scents and sounds of primavera. All over Pisa, the wisteria is in full bloom, filling the air with an intoxicating perfume. The swallows, the acrobatic high flyers of the bird kingdom, have returned. Gliding swiftly and effortlessly above the River Arno and through the narrow corridors that separate the great tower houses of Pisa, the birds' high-pitched calls fill the morning and evening skies as they feast on newly-hatched insects.
Yesterday, the little three-wheeled truck piled high with spring artichokes made its first appearance on the Borgo Stretto. And in the market, wild field greens, spring peas, tender fava beans and big bunches of cultivated asparagus fill the big red bins of the vegetable sellers.
If you are so inclined, know where to look, have a bicycle and a sunny day, you can pick wild asparagus. I have all of these things so when I found myself with a free afternoon, I put on my hiking shoes, grabbed a cloth bag and pedaled out of town along the Medici aqueduct toward the Monti Pisani, the high hills that form the green backdrop of Pisa. There, in an olive grove that climbs a steep, terraced hillside, the asparagus grows amid a profusion of wild flowers
Asparagus acutifolius is found only in the Mediterranean basin. It is an evergreen and as its Latin name implies, is thorny and prickly. The thin, delicate spears hide in the thick grey-green foliage and are not easy to spot.
I was lucky. It was a weekday and I had the Monti to myself. At the base of the hill, wild fennel was growing and I made a note to pick some on the way back. (Fennel greens are great sauteed or chopped fresh into salads. Or throw a big bunch of fennel greens into boiling water; cook some pasta in the water; and then serve the pasta with butter or olive oil, salt and cheese for a delicate first course.)
Asparagus is not only good, it's good for you. It's low in calories and salt and full of vitamins and minerals and has been eaten for thousands of years. Asparagus spears appear on a 5,000-year-old Egyptian vase and the vegetable was very popular in Greek and Roman times. It fell out of favor in the Middle Ages, but by the 1500s, it was being celebrated for its aphrodisiacal qualities. There is no creditable scientific proof of this, but it is known that for some people, eating asparagus in the evening can inhibit sleep. It might be that - more than any chemical effect - that turns one's thoughts to lovemaking.
By the end of the afternoon, I had lots of wild asparagus, some fennel and a nice sunny complexion. I biked home and that evening we had a delicious, simple asparagus pasta. (Who needs sleep?) The recipe is below.
If you don't have access to wild asparagus and it's springtime where you are, buy the freshest asparagus you can find in the market; mix up a green salad; accompany it with a good bottle of Italian wine and enjoy. It's up to you whether you have it for lunch or dinner.
(If you are fortunate enough to live in a land where asparagus acutifolius grows and want to learn how to cultivate it at home, click here.)
For more photos, click here.
Pasta with wild asparagus
A bunch of wild (or cultivated) asparagus
1-2 garlic cloves chopped
Pasta of your choice
1. Bring about 5 quarts of water to a rolling boil, put in the pasta and cook for the required time.
2. In the meantime, especially if using wild asparagus cut off just the tender tips (about 3 inches or so - 30 cm)
3. Cover the bottom of a small frying pan with good, full-bodied olive oil.
4. Set to medium-low heat, and add garlic, asparagus and some good sea salt.
5. Saute for just a few minutes until garlic is golden and asparagus is cooked, but still a little bit crisp. (Don't overcook. Try to remember the Roman expression for acting quickly, which loosely translates from the Latin to "faster than cooking asparagus.")
6. Drain pasta, toss it over a low flame with some more olive oil, serve it into pasta dishes and top with cooked asparagus.
7. Serve with grated parmesan cheese.