No matter what the season, there is always something to be foraged in and around our ulivetto (olive grove). Early spring brings one of the best treats of all, as clusters of wild asparagus begin to appear among the roots of the olive trees. The spindly stems of wild asparagus are easy to miss and hours of foraging may yield only small bundles of spears – especially when there is stiff competion from eagle-eyed local nonnas. But for me, the elusive nature of wild asparagus makes it a particularly valued treat.
Finding wild asparagus
Wild asparagus grows in sunny spots in moist soil, and seems to like ditches and the edge of fields. Its foliage has a distinctive feathery and fern-like appearance, like a mini fir tree. Although tall spears can occasionally be spotted from a distance, in general the key to successful asparagus foraging is to look for the leaves of the plant.
Some varieties of wild asparagus grow upright but the variety we have growing around the olive grove is the prostate, mediterranean kind. The plants have a tendency to sprawl along the ground for a metre or more, often becoming entangled with neighbouring undergrowth. To locate the edible shoots you need to trace the plant back to its base, as it’s there that you will, if you’re lucky, find a few of the delicate spears sent up by the roots. Asparagus leaves are spiny so gloves and long-sleeves are recommended for this task.
Spears should be cut at ground level (this encourages further shoots) when they are at least 10cm tall and while the tips are still closed. In general, tall, thin spears are the most tender, and short, stubby spears may be bitter and should be given a few days to develop before picking. It is important to leave a few spears to open and go to seed as this ensures next year’s crop.
Cooking wild asparagus
Wild asparagus has a stronger, more bitter flavour than the cultivated variety and (luckily) even a small number of spears will flavour a dish. Spears tend to wilt quickly so should be eaten when fresh. We usually use only the tips as the stems can be woody.
Since we had some fresh eggs from a neighbouring farmer, Michele made a frittata with our haul, but wild asparagus is also delicious eaten with pasta bianca. Vienna (Michele’s mum) also preserves them sott’olio (under oil) so the taste of springtime can be enjoyed another day.