Tuesday 29 March 2016

Un Pommeriggio con Pino alla ricerca degli Mitici Asparagi Selvatici della Sabina - A Guest Post by Richard Rooney

Our pal Pino

Today I had one of those days that after living in Italy in a small hilltop town for over a year and a half stood out as one of the best. I went asparagus hunting! 

In 2012, we discovered, or should I say, we were introduced to Asparagi selvatici, Italy's wild asparagus, by our friend Fiorenzo Francioli from Montebuono.  Before he found me my first sprig, I had looked at all of these nonni and nonne happily ambling along the country roads we were driving on who were carrying home bag loads of wild asparagus... And I couldn't even find my first sprig.  I don't know why, but I was obsessed with finding it.

Our first wild asparagus sprig in 2012 found for us in Montebuono by our friend Fiorenzo

After that first green sprig I was totally hooked.  Every spring James and I would walk in the countryside picking up the odd piece here and there, but still nothing could compare to what the locals were getting.  

Back in the days when I was happy to find two sprigs on the road to Santa Maria in Legarano

I have to admit, there were times I almost wanted to stick my head out our rental car window and grab a bag of it from some poor contadina! It was just a thought, but seriously, I was tempted. 

We first really connected with our friend, Pino Perilli a couple of years ago at the Sagra del Frittello (Deep Fried Cauliflower Festival) in Roccantica.  He was dancing with his wife Donatella, and James and I were mesmerised by how beautifully they danced.  

They danced the two step, the fox trot, the tango, you name it they knew it and danced it well. 

They have something here called Ballo di Gruppo... 

It's the Italian version of line dancing—to me a lot sexier than our Western boot scoot dancing! I got up to give it a try, and Pino taught me a dance in two minutes. 

Even Sponge Bob Square Pants does Ballo di Gruppo
He is an amazing teacher: patient, steady, and very clear on instruction. Anyway, the dancing is a whole other story. Hopefully I can write about that in the near future.

Back to wild asparagus huntingand it is a hunt... Spring is here, and lately we have been seeing photos on Facebook of Pino with wadges of wild asparagus... huge bunches of it.  As much as I admired his bounty of the green treasureso deliciousI must say I was a bit envious.

The other day while I was sick in bed, Pino phoned and said he was coming over.. that he had to drop something off.  Ten minutes later he was at our door with a huge bouquet of asparagus, telling me to share half with our good friends Helen and Ritchie Dakin.

We were so grateful, because if you have not had the immense pleasure, the taste wild asparagus is like nothing like any store-bought asparagus you have ever had before. There are different kinds. Some a little more bitter, some sweeter. Chopped up and sautéed with eggs, tossed in pasta, or mixed in with a delicate risotto, anything... It is an earthy, sweet taste that exalts any dish. Highly prized by cooks and buongustai all over Italy, if you try to buy it in the markets, you pay a pretty penny.

Wild asparagus at 39 Euros a kilogram at a vegetable store in Poggio Mirteto

I then asked Pino if he wouldn't mind if I came with him on one of his hunts, and he said, "Certo!" No problem!  I promised not to tell anyone about his secret places. He just laughed and said "Va bene, va bene!"

So today was our day. I thought that we would be walking to where we would be foraging but it was about a twenty minute tractor ride out in the countryside, which I absolutely loved.  There is something about riding on a tractor that brings back wonderful memories of being on the farm in Saskatchewan and riding one with my Uncle Bill during the harvest. It made me feel like I was 10 years old again.

We arrived at our destination, parked the tractor in an olive grove at the base of a hill, then climbed through the grove up into the wild. Pino explained that if I was foraging where there was dense growth, for safety's sake, before I picked any asparagus, that I should poke around a bit with a stick... In case there were any serpenti—poisonous snakes!  Springtime is apparently the time you should really watch out for them, so I had a bastonebig stickto fight off the vipers. 

I asked Pino, "What about you?" but he said no. They flee when they see him... And if they're not fast enough, he picks them up and takes a bite out of them!
So, for the next two and a half hours, we traversed a hill with some paths, but also a lot of dense growth...  As Pino said, "Quando si sporca, si trova!" It's when you get dirty—meaning hiking in dense growth—that you find them.

Pino has eyes like a falcon.  He could spot a piece of asparagus a block away.  We went our separate ways for a while, and I actually was doing pretty good, and thought, wow, I've actually got a few here. 

About half an hour later, I met up with him, saying, "Hey! I've got a few!" He said, "Me too, just a few." In his hand, he was holding about 100 pieces ! 

Pino's bunch on the left, mine on the right

Near the end of our hike, he would say, "Richard, look there, there's one. Richard, look over there, there's another one!  I was really being trained by the Master!  

I was getting a little tired, and very very thirsty—I can't believe I hadn't thought to bring water. Finally, we headed back down the hill and soon we were back on Pino's tractor, riding happily through the beauty of the Sabine countryside back to Casperia. Pino drove us right up into town, through the Porta Romana. As Pino's tractor rumbled up the steps heading toward Via Massari I turned and looked across the valley to where we had been foraging and breathed in the amazingly clean air. I felt blessed and so lucky. At Via Massari I hopped off the tractor, thanked Pino, then turned and wearily made my way up Casperia's stone steps to Via Latini to show James my fistful of heaven.  

Tonight, James is cooking freshly made Stringozzi with sausage and pancetta, and, oh, of course, asparagus !

Thank you Pino, il Re degli Asparagi, for showing us so many things here in Casperia: dancing, olive picking, and asparagus hunting. It is hard to put into words but these are gifts to me, and I am so grateful...
We are so lucky to be here, and so glad that we embarked on this journey of moving to Italy and having these very simple, but amazing  experiences!