Monday, April 29, 2013

Wild Asparagus

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.

For an in-depth article on asparagus from the blog Quick Easy Cook, click here.

A presto, 

Pasta with wild asparagus 

A bunch of wild  (or cultivated) asparagus
Parmesan cheese
1-2 garlic cloves chopped
Olive oil
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.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pisa Unchanged

To see more photos, click here

Recently, I attended a press conference given by the mayor of Pisa. Its purpose was to announce an upcoming Dante conference and a new summer program entitled: "Reading Dante in Pisa." (If you would like to enroll, click here.) In 1312-1313, Dante is believed to have spent quite a bit of time in Pisa writing his famous Monarchia. After his death, Pisa was a center of Dante studies and some of the best-known Dante commentators and historians lived here. The University of Pisa is, in fact, still home to a host of illustrious Dante scholars. (One of them, Marco Santagata, recently published a well-reviewed narrative biography of the poet: Dante, Il Romanzo della sua Vita.) While Florence, Bologna and Ravenna have capitalized on their role in the life of Dante to attract visitors to their cities, Pisa's connection to the great poet is much less known. 

How big a draw is Dante, you might ask. Well, when the well-known actor Roberto Benigni read the Divine Comedy on Italian television, more than 10 million people tuned in. The entire 13 programs have reached more than 45 percent of Italian households.

The Dante initiative is just one part of a larger plan to make Pisa more attractive to tourists. Contracts with the European low-cost airlines are bringing more and more visitors to Pisa and the city wants people to know that it has a lot more to offer than one magnificent leaning tower. 

A new, multi-media web site with tourist itineraries is in the works; two new museums - Palazzo Blu and the Museum of Graphic Design - have opened on the Lungarno in recent years; and the restoration of Pisa's incredible medieval walls is well on its way to completion. Soon it will be possible to walk the restored portions of the nearly 35-foot high walls and see Pisa from a whole new point of view. A relative late-comer, the town's beautiful Teatro Verdi, completed in 1867, has a new web site (presently in Italian only). Visitors can now buy tickets online to the theater's many plays, concerts, operas and dance performances. On the splendid Piazza dei Cavalieri, the ugly blacktop paving has been removed and replaced with more traditional paving stones. The Piazza Victorio Emanuele II, under construction for many years, is now finished, complete with underground parking. Cars are no longer allowed on the square, which means locals and tourists arriving at the near-by train station can enjoy a long passeggiata from the Piazza down the renovated pedestrian street of the Corso Italia, over the Ponte di Mezzo and on to the medieval Borgo Stretto. Along the way, they pass great shops, book stores, restaurants, bars, cafes and gelaterias.

Not every citizen in Pisa, of course, is happy with all the changes, but from a visitor's point of view, the biggest draw in Pisa is all the things that haven't changed - not in hundreds  and hundreds of years.  

The cathedral, one of the most celebrated Romanesque buildings in the world, was started in 1064, the Baptistery in 1152, and the famous Leaning Tower in 1173. The town walls of Pisa were begun in 1155. Just outside the walls is the modern-day Jewish Cemetery, which opened in 1674 on the site of an earlier 13th-century one. The University of Pisa, one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Europe, was founded in 1343. The National Museum of San Matteo, housed in a 13th-century Benedictine convent, is filled with magnificent works of art from the 12th to the 17th centuries.  At the archeological site of the Cantiere delle Navi Antiche, there are the remains of ships dating from the 5th century b.c. to the 7th century a.d, a testament to Pisa's maritime dominance, which continued into the 13th century. The Borgo Stretto, as it name implies, is a narrow street in the heart of the old town lined with 15th-century arcades. 

In addition to its monumental buildings, Pisa is packed with beautiful, smaller Romanesque churches, magnificent town houses along the Arno, and hundreds of traditional Tuscan-colored, medieval tower houses. One of them is the house where Galileo was born. And although more than 1 million people visit the Leaning Tower each year, it is still possible in Pisa to walk alone down any number of small streets and to imagine yourself in a time far removed from the present.  

Our apartment is right in the heart of medieval Pisa, just down the block from the Teatro Verdi and Galileo's house. We're just steps away from the Arno River, but we've not seen many tourists in our neighborhood. The other day, however, I saw two American women with a guide book, looking up at our tower house.  

So, if you want to see Pisa before the rush, come now.   

To see more photos, click here.

A presto,

Photos by GFK