“Let’s discuss the program for today,” said Emanuele on Saturday morning, just after we had deposited my baggage at his son’s agriturismo but just before he drove me out to visit his olive groves and oil mill. “This afternoon, my friend invite me to hunt for wild asparagus. You like to go?”
A wild asparagus hunt. It sounds terribly romantic, doesn’t it? And in some ways, it is terribly romantic. You drive out into the countryside with your friend Maurizio. You park your car on the side of the road, and then you put on Emanuele’s wife’s rainboots (luckily you happen to have the same size feet). You climb over a pair of rickety wooden fences while Emanuele hums “I don’t know but I been told.” Then you tromp across a rocky hillside strewn with wildflowers and you catch your breath soaking in the incredible beauty of the valley below and the misty mountains in the distance.
Some may say it’s a little less romantic once your pants and hands and even your face are smudged with ashy soot (the landscape bears the black evidence of a recent wildfire), or when you’re leaning heavily on your walking stick to keep your balance as you try to avoid twisting your ankle or tumbling down the steep incline. But for serious asparagus hunters, that’s all just part of the charm.
|Can you spot the asparagus?|
The asparagus, too, is a tricky business. It’s shy and solitary, generally preferring to grow alone or with a very few close friends, nestled amidst pricker bushes at the feet of the trees and scrubby bushes that dot the landscape. Maurizio is an expert at spotting asparagus a few meters away and then scrambling up or down a shaky incline to pluck it. You, on your first Great Wild Asparagus Hunt, are lucky if you can see it right in front of your face.
Finding the asparagus is only half the battle (luckily, Maurizio points out plenty of it to you). Once found, it is not generally inclined to be picked. Maurizio shows you the proper method, using the thumb and first two fingers to bend and break the pencil-sized stalks, but sometimes they require considerable tugging to come loose. He also demonstrates how to bite off and discard the tough ends of the stalks that are too long; that way, you can assemble a tidy handful of asparagus.
After an hour and a half, your legs are shaky and your fingers are sore where you’ve been snapping stalks, but you’ve amassed a bulging plastic bagful of skinny wild asparagus. Though the whole venture was Maurizio’s idea and though he collected the lion’s share of the haul, he won’t keep a single stalk for himself. Once at home, it is to be cut in inch-long bits and frozen for year-round use. You can only find wild asparagus from late March to mid-May, so you must take advantage of it now during the season.
On the way back to the agriturismo for the evening, Emanuele buys you a gelato. Asparagus hunting is hungry work.