Istrians love food and in Spring that means asparagus, picked wild from fields and hedgerows. With pickers popping up everywhere around me, this seems a good time to revisit the very first article I wrote for Live Istria in 2010.
Moving abroad, living in a new country, is all about discovery: discovering new things and new ways of life. For me, living in rural Istria, one of these has been an introduction to asparagus – a vegetable I previously only knew in soup. Here in Istria, it is a much sought after delicacy used in numerous different recipes and the most sought after is wild asparagus, whose arrival marks the start of Spring.
Wild asparagus grows in the hedgerows and from early- to mid-March, you’ll see locals patrolling the roadsides, heads down, peering into the undergrowth, hunting a free lunch. As the season gets under way, entrepreneurs start appearing. Parked beside the road, sat in camping chairs, with a large bucket of asparagus on a folding table, they’re selling that morning’s harvest. And, by the size of the bucket, you know there must be a lot of it out there.
Having watched this annual rite from afar, I finally decided it was time, I too started harvesting and asked Marija, my local expert on edible nature to be my guide.
Fully equipped with good boots and a strong stick, we set forth into the field next to my house. Stick in hand, Marija led the way – straight to the hedge. I had just received my first lesson. I had assumed asparagus would grow in the middle of the field, but no, it hugs the hedge-line and areas of thicket.
My field, it turns out, is an excellent site and we soon began to find asparagus plants. I quickly learnt we weren’t looking for the mature, prickly dark green bushes; we wanted the new, delicate and tender shoots which appear like spears around the base of plant.
Can you see it yet?
It’s said you have to have an eye for asparagus hunting. One person can walk a lane, coming home with enough for a meal; someone else will come back with nothing. How true this was. Time and again I was told there were asparagus shoots in front of me – but where??? “Look, a little to your left. No, up a bit.” Stare as hard as I could, I’d see nothing: then, suddenly, they’d appear right in front of me, clear as day. How could I have missed them? “It’s practice,” explained Marija. “The more you do it, the easier they are to find.”
I was also surprised to find asparagus hunting takes a lot of concentration. Look up and away, or let your mind wander for a moment, and you’ll walk straight past a juicy shoot. There’s no time for conversation. Heads down, constantly scanning the hedgerow, we moved slowly from prickly bush to prickly bush. This is where the stick comes in, gently pushing aside the old growth and associated brambles to find the hidden shoots, tucked away, out of sight.
We were looking for two types of asparagus: thick spears, green-brown in colour with stems the thickness of pencils, which grow straight in the air; and spindly, branched asparagus which twists its way skywards round other vegetation. The first type is the most succulent and sought after, but the other is equally tasty.
It’s all in the touch
Picking asparagus was the next lesson. Never try to pull it up. Instead, run your hand up the stem, gently bending it with your thumb. As you approach the top, the stem will flex and break with a satisfying crack. What you’re left holding is the tender, edible, asparagus tip. The exact breaking point varies from stem to stem. Sometimes you get a long shoot, other times it’s just the tip. Don’t try and add to your meal by breaking the long stem further down: the stalks are woody and you’ll just find yourself chewing on sticks!
“When’s the best time to pick asparagus?” I asked Marija. “Before everyone else gets to it,” she replied with a laugh, her head in a bramble bush. “The season usually runs from mid-March to the end of April, or early May, but it depends on the weather. If March starts wet and warm, the season starts earlier: if April’s dry and hot, it also finishes earlier.” We were out looking in mid-April. A bit late in the season according to Marija. “Go out in March,” she advised, “and the asparagus is much easier to spot as there’s less growing around it. Now, it’s hidden by all the other vegetation. That doesn’t make it any less tasty, just harder to find.”
Even so, it only took us about half an hour to pick a good handful of asparagus. But that was with Marija’s trained eyes. Alone it would have taken me far longer. But, as she said, it’s all a matter of practice. So I’ll say bye for now. I’m off for more asparagus-hunting practice – and the makings of lunch of course.
Your free lunch
Cream of asparagus soup (Gusta juha od šparoga)
Asparagus soup (Juha od šparoga)
Asparagus with spinach sauce (šparoge s umakom od špinata)
Asparagus and button mushroom soup (Juha od šparoga I šampinjona )
Wild asparagus omelette (Fritaja sa šparogama)