È primavera svegliatevi bambine…. sang the great Alberto Rabagliati in the mid-twentieth century. Spring: the season of reawakening. After the long, dark winter, where the dominant shades are the washed-out grays of the cloudy skies and the leafless trees, spring injects everything with color and puts something in the air that really lifts the spirits.
Now that we’re into our second year of restrictions, everything is mitigated to some degree; everything is complicated. But one thing has struck me recently and made me reflect: despite everything, spring has arrived and it has put a smile on everybody’s faces. It has burst forth in all its aeon-old magnificence, and everyone is happier for it.
I found myself wondering: what would be the dish in my repertoire that best represents spring? To my surprise, I came up with a satisfactory answer, multiple answers, in fact. There are too many to mention, because late March ushers in the artichokes and asparagus, while April is symbolized by strawberries and green beans, which we have discussed in a previous article. And the season culminates in all its Maytime glory with zucchini, eggplants and the first tomatoes.
It’s impossible to choose one single thing among all this bounty, but I have to admit that there is one thing in particular that I wait for impatiently every year, one thing that represents a milestone in my culinary journey. In truth, it isn’t one thing: it’s a lot of different things that I like to think of as the first buds of spring, an immensely rich gastronomic seam that the earth positively shoves in our faces and yet which we often fail to notice.
So, let me give you a brief aside on what it is that I love cooking and eating so much at this time of year, and which you, with just a little bit of effort and patience, can make too:
Nettle leaves: They’re the easiest things in the world to recognize, and if you can’t, then it’s just a matter of touching them with your hand: it’ll sting. So, my first piece of advice is wear a pair of thick gloves. At this time of year, you’ll only be able to get five or six leaves out of every plant. They should be a bright, brilliant green color.
These leaves go perfectly with gnocchi or gnudi, an excellent ricotta cheese and a pecorino fondue as a sauce. They also go superbly in bardiccio risotto (at some point I’ll talk to you about bardiccio, a type of salami from my part of the world), which is a dish ideally suited to these spring evenings: still fresh, but no longer chilly.
It also makes for a good egg-less pasta, in which you replace the egg with 60 grams of dried, boiled nettles. It’s a satisfying dish, not least because it shows you how something delicious can come from just a stroll in the countryside.
Wild asparagus: things become notably tougher. You can find nettles anywhere, but with asparagus, you need to have a bit of insider knowledge; otherwise you risk returning empty-handed. Wild asparagus is much finer than its cultivated counterpart, and has a green color that tends to shade into violet. You can eat it raw, in salads and pinzimonio, but in fact you can use it in pretty much anything: in the kitchen, you’ll come to consider it as your closest friend. It’s at its absolute best in a frittata.
Bladder campion: this is something you will probably only find after repeated, even obsessive questing. For one thing, you have to know where it grows – often in the shade of olive trees – and then, once you’ve found it, you have to extricate it from the tangled mass of plants that this tiny herb likes to to grow under. It fights shy of light and heat, too much of which will make it wither and die. But believe me, it’s worth all the effort, because it can turn a simple dish into a masterpiece. With ricotta, it makes a superb filling for ravioli; with olive oil, garlic and a bit of dried ricotta, it makes a wonderful pesto. And with a bit of burrata cheese, stuffing a small calzone, it’s simply stupendous.
Naturally, spring brings hundreds of other edible plants to the table. There’s milk thistle, for example, wonderful but difficult to clean; there’s wild chard, which grows thick among vines and offers a fantastic woodland flavor. The sprouts from Old Man’s Beard can really elevate the humble omelette, while Butcher’s Broom – well, that’s a protected species, so you can’t do anything with it, I’m afraid. Spring gives us so much, and now that I think about, I’ve forgotten to mention prugnoli mushrooms. I’ve only talked about plants in this article, but these mushrooms – my favourite of all – also poke their heads up with the spring. How could I have forgotten about them? Next year I’ll remember.