It’s no secret that we are besotted with the Cilento, and if it’s possible to love seasonally, we absolutely adore spring in this blessed part of Italy. The weather is delightful, with warm, breezy days and cool nights (Ah, the luxury of sleeping blanketed in June!), the pace of life quickens, and the flowers for which the area has been famous since antiquity are, impossibly, even more luxuriant. And it will come as no shock to our friends that good food is an essential part of our springtime enjoyment.
Italians tend to eat seasonally in any case. What a crazy notion! You enjoy local foods in abundance as long as they abound, and then move on to another perfectly ripe local food and dream of those delicious asparagus or cherries or favas that you anticipate next year. Meanwhile, American supermarkets in winter are overflowing with produce from Chile and Argentina, and we eat the same foods so continually that they lose their exciting freshness. I’m not preaching here. I grow so nostalgic for ripe tomatoes in February that I’ll take my chances on those cardboard abominations from California, only to have my hopes dashed yet again.
So imagine what a treat it has been to experience early spring in the Cilento for the first time! This was our first May in Italy in some 23 years of Italian travel and living. And you may be sure we relished seasonal foods. Here’s a sample.
Italians savor the cultivated variety just as we do, if not more, but there’s nothing to compare with the intense taste of the asparagi selvatici. I remember Fernando’s shock our first summer here when he discovered I had never tasted the wild variety. I asked if they were really that much better. His only response was to roll his eyes upward, place his hands together in prayerful stance and waggle them up and down. Even the voluble Italians know there are some ideas beyond words.
|A bunch of wild asparagus|
Asparagus have been a delicacy in Italy since antiquity. The Roman emperor Augustus adored them, but only when cooked to the crunchy-tender stage. In fact, a favorite expression of his was “quick as boiled asparagus”. Wild asparagus are part of the Mediterranean scrub, macchia, and these days they grow most often in abandoned fields. The wild variety is a small, spindly shrub with numerous skinny branches and tiny, spiky leaves. But the plant propagates by sending up shoots from its extensive root system, and it is these tender shoots that are the prizes. Unless they are plucked before the buds open, they become woody and unusable, so good timing is essential.
We almost missed out this time; the season was pretty much over in Agropoli, but there was one roadside stand where the purveyor had foraged a late crop from the Alburni plateau, some 2,000 feet higher in elevation. I almost missed out even then, because the price of a bundle seemed so exorbitant to me, but Fernando was so intent on our tasting this delicacy that he insisted on chipping in half the price. And then explained that our bunch represented hours and hours of foraging and the price was entirely fair.
But how to prepare them? A quick trip upstairs to consult our expert on all things culinary, Filo. But, halfway through her explanation, she paused and said, “On better thought, give me five minutes and I’ll be downstairs.” Our own personal chef, and not just any chef, but dear Filo, who is an incredibly talented cook.
|Filo works her magic.|
Filo put a pot of well salted pasta water on to boil and heated a good half cup of the Astones’ exquisite olive oil in a sauté pan, then showed us how to break the little spears into one-inch lengths, starting from the tops and proceeding until they began to resist, discarding the remainder as too woody. Into the pan of hot oil they went, and an intense asparagus aroma drifted up. Then she added a handful of pomodorini, our dead-ripe local grape tomatoes, halved, and began to mash them with a fork to create a simple sauce. Into the pasta pot went 12 ounces of good commercial spaghetti, and while it cooked and the sauce simmered, Filo grated a good cup of Parm. Filo made us her testers for when the pasta was al dente—sadly, this talented culinarian is gluten-intolerant—in the only proper way to test, namely, by tasting it! Duh! When it was one minute shy of al dente, into the sauce pan it went to ‘marry’, and then Filo took the pasta to the plates with a nice dusting of cheese. Paired with a light red or a white wine. Delicious!
|Spaghetti con asparagi selvatici|
Tagliatelle con funghi porcini
Another spring delicacy from the wilds is luscious, funky porcini mushrooms. Actually, these guys show up in fall as well. The key is that they love cool nights and warmish days. But this year the drought has taken its toll, and we hunted in vain from our local purveyors. Fernando suggested the Alburni range might be a possibility here as well, but when we visited the gorgeous little mountain town of Sicignano, we asked our friends Giulietta and Anna Maria about them and they explained sadly that even in the mountains it has been too dry this Spring for mushrooms.
|Fresh percini mushrooms|
But our friend Katiuscea came to the rescue, suggesting we use frozen specimens from the supermarcato. Actually, these are a perfectly good substitute for the fresh, and even fine restaurants in the Cilento often use them when fresh are not available, though they dutifully reveal at the foot of the menu that such is the case. They can be found on-line here in the states, though rather pricey. I don’t think I would substitute the dried, reconstituted ones, however; this is a delicate dish and the dried variety in my opinion would be overpowering, dearly as I love them elsewhere.
|Taglieatelle con funghi procini|
This is another simple, perfect pasta dish, but it absolutely must be made with fresh tagliatelle. Make it yourself or buy it fresh. Buitoni is a perfectly good product widely available here. Bring a large pot of well salted water to the boil. Add a generous half cup of best olive oil to the sauté pan (if this seems excessive, remember that the oil really is the sauce), add the thawed mushrooms to the pan and allow the excess water to cook off, which will take several minutes. Then add a good handful of grape tomatoes, halved, a generous amount of fresh thyme, and some salt. Add black pepper if you like, but this dish really cries out for pepper flakes or, even better, a thin drizzle of olio santo, not the Californian stuff flogged but Ina Garten, but good olive oil infused with chili peppers. As the sauce simmers and marries, drop the pasta but remember it will cook for only 4 minutes or so. Add the drained pasta to the sauté pan and combine thoroughly and serve immediately with a dusting of grated cheese. Here in the Cilento this will be a hard cacioricotta goats’ milk cheese, but grated pecorino or Parm would be fine. Again, pair with a light red or a white wine.
Beans and peas have been a staple of la cucina povera in Italy since time immemorial, but the first, fresh, spring varieties are considered a delicacy and eaten raw. Fresh favas may be shelled and eaten with the outer skin of the bean still on if especially tender, but you may need to parboil the shelled beans for a minute and then pop them out of this skin. In Tuscany many years ago these were eaten with fresh pecorino cheese, but here in the Cilento they are paired with fresh (not aged) caccioricotta and little dice of raw pancetta. Just be sure to buy real pancetta which is hard-cured and, like cousin prosciutto crudo, doesn’t require cooking.
|Fave con pancetta cruda|
Another famine food, in this case used as such for at least 3,000 years in the Mediterranean, are lupin beans. Like all the vetches, the seeds contain bitter alkaloids and must be soaked in brine to leach out the bitterness. In Agropoli’s Thursday street market, now conveniently moved to a special fairgrounds, they can be bought pre-soaked. The outer skin here must be removed since it’s strictly indigestible, but then the beans are ready to be eaten as an antipasto or snack, salted and drizzled with good oil, and are often toasted and salted and eaten like peanuts.
|Lupini, part skinned and part not|
Yet another ancient food, these members of the thistle family are really the flower buds of this scrubby little plant. Today they are cultivated, and just north of Agropoli in the Paestum Plain a special variety called Tondo di Paestum is so famous it has gained IGP (indicazione geografica protetta) status. Actually, cultivation of these plants here is strictly modern, one of the many new varieties that were planted in the Plain after it was drained and irrigated in the Fascist land reclamation projects of the late 1920s. Our local variety is eaten roasted,or boiled, but they are so tender when extremely fresh that they are also simply sliced thin and eaten raw under oil or vinegar.
|Beautiful carciofi pestani|
|One that got away, in a field near Paestum|
Medlars and Other Fruits
This region is known as the fruit basket of Europe, and rightly so, since fruit of all types is grown in such profusion. Here on the tenuta we are especially spoiled since all the fruit is organic, what the Italians call biologico, and can be eaten right off the plant. Right across the terrace there’s a huge, shallow pot where talented horticulturist Filo grows tiny little wild strawberries, so intensely ‘strawberry’ in taste that they practically explode in your mouth. Then there are the three varieties of mulberries—white, black and purple—each with a distinctive taste, which are also three paces away from our front door. What a luxury to stand under the trees and pluck fruits directly into your mouth and gorge on these luscious little fruits. No need to worry about hogging them; the trees produce in such profusion that even the dormice and magpies can’t keep up.
|Gelsi (mulberries) come in white, black and purple varieties.|
Then there are the local orchard fruits both here on the farm and at local stands: cherries and apricots and plums and peaches and tiny little pears. Doubtless our favorite are the June figs that locals call fiori di fichi, ‘flower of the fig’. These are larger and juicier than the August figs and, draped with good prosciutto, make a perfect antipasto.
|Apricots across the terrace|
|And Filo's peaches|
|The Astones' plums|
|Our favorite, fiore di fichi|
But a fruit we had never experienced before are medlars, Italian nespoli. Medlars are a native wild fruit tree which has been cultivated since Roman times. Actually, there is one form in the U.S., but only in Prairie County, Arkansas, of all places, and critically endangered because there are only 25 trees known to exist. The Italian medlar is a small tree with beautiful, glossy, dark-green elliptical leaves and ovoid yellowish fruits about the size of a golf ball. In former times and today in more northerly climates they must be ‘bletted’ to eliminate some of the astringent tannins; that is, the fruits are exposed to frost and allowed to just begin to rot. Very much like our Southern persimmons. Chaucer compares his old age to a medlar, apparently when he’s just beginning to ‘rot’, and calls them ‘open-arsed’ because of the calyx which surrounds the fruit before maturity,
|Medlars on the tree|
Our local variety fruits in incredible profusion and has no need of bletting, being very low in tannins. The flesh has a soft, cream-colered, custard-like texture and a somewhat peachy taste with citrus notes. In the center of the fruits is a large, glossy bronze seed, very pretty.
Finally, there is my favorite spring fruit, which comes conveniently in a bottle. May is when the previous fall’s fresh white wines are released in the Cilento. No one loves more than I a complex white, aged in oak for perhaps six months and then aged in bottle for two or three years. But those wines are strictly for Fall and for heavier fare. In luscious June, with all these luscious spring foods, a fresh, lively, acidic Fiano which has never seen oak is the only way to go.
In bocca al lupo!