Saturday afternoon, 13 April 2013. The temperature is 23C and my friend Michele is passing on his daily walk with his dog, Bobby. We chat in the lane and he points to something in the hedgerow, “Wild asparagus,” he says as he picks two lanky spears and hands them to me. Every day, the lane up to out house is visited by locals with carrier bags, they can be seen scanning the land for free food. Foraging is a part of the Italian way of life, and this time of the year they are out looking for the asparagus. I often cut rosemary from the fragrant bushes in the lane, or pick borage flowers to freeze in ice cubes; ideal for dressing up a gin and tonic and I’ve also collected the leaves from the wild garlic. But that has been my limit. “I’ll show you,” Michele says, “It’s important to do it right.” The first rule is you must wear long sleeves so that you don’t get scratched. I’m wearing a T-shirt so have fallen at the first fence, so to speak.
With Bobby following behind we climb up the side of lane into the greenery and head up an incline as we head towards the olives. Michele points out what looks like a fern and tells me that this is the main part of the plant. Very quickly he spots the thin spears and picks them and hands them to me. I peer into the undergrowth and can see nothing, I’m staring like a man possessed and Michele points, “There.” I still can’t see anything and he deftly steps forward and plucks three spears. “Years of practice,” he laughs. We continue through the olives and he tells me that it is important to wear sturdy shoes. I’m wearing canvas pumps: Fail number two.
We scramble through a thicket of spiny leaved bushes, and are beside the ruins, Michele finds more asparagus and I find scratches on my arms. There’s two spears near a huge cactus, Michele hands me Bobby’s rope to hold and he clambers onto the cactus, it’s not sturdy and it is very spiny. I wonder at the need to put yourself in danger just for two measly strips of vegetation. But I guess historically feeding the family was of prime importance and the life of a contadino, (peasant farmer) was hard, so every morsel must have counted. We carry on searching and I find my first patch and feeling like I’ve achieved something I pluck the green stalks from the earth.
As we reach the dirt track Michele tells me that the asparagus won’t be found here, as it grows in the shade and doesn’t flourish in the heat too, so it’s pointless going any higher up the hill where there are no bushes. He stops to point out some mushroom and tells me that they are deadly and I mustn’t even touch them. We walk through a patch of purple coloured orchids and he spots more bounty beneath a young fig tree. The bundle in my hand is now quite large, and he tells me, “That’s enough, only take what you need, leave the rest for another family.” He then tells me that I really shouldn’t wear thin cotton trousers when walking in the fields as I could end up with a tick on my skin. Fail number three.
“Thick jeans are better,” he says. Then rolls up the left leg of his and shows me a scar where he was bitten by a tick a year ago and had to go to the hospital to have it removed and four stitches put into the wound. He looks down and there’s blood on the back of his hand, he’s got a small black one of the dreaded ticks attached to his skin. “This is how you kill a tick,” he tells me as he drops it onto a stone and taking another stone crushes the beast. “Don’t stamp on it, it might get wedged in the sole of your shoe and survive, and you’ll then take it into your home.”
We chat in the lane and he tells me how to cook this feast we’ve collected, plenty of salted water, boil for just a few minutes add to some garlic and butter and lightly fry then toss into the pan some cooked spaghetti with a drizzle of good olive oil and serve. I tell him I’ll do exactly as he says and let him know how it tastes. He then randomly tells me he had a prostate operation the previous year and waves as he continues walking Bobby.
I cut the woody stems from the bundle and cook as directed and have to say it’s tasty, a tad bitter, but not dissimilar to the asparagus I’ve had in the UK.
The following day, I see three people in the lane scouring the hedgerows, and as I watch them picking asparagus Michele turns up to ask if I liked my dinner last night. I tell him I did and before he continues on his way, he says remember, sleeves, shoes and jeans