Local Pride – Part III: Seasonality

Since the topic of food is never far away with Italians – let’s talk seasonality.  Back in my Category 2 days, I was normally in Italy during the prime weeks of Spring and Fall in order to take advantage of good biking weather.  However, now that we start our stay in early March and might leave as late as November, we’ve discovered totally new tastes.

For instance, there are punterella and agretti – two vegetables that we had never seen in either Italy or the US.  Punterella comes first in early Spring, and I don’t even know how to describe it.  While it sort of looks like you had taken a stalk of celery and peeled off lengths of it, the taste has nothing to do with celery.  It’s a popular Roman dish, and the fact that they always prepare it in an anchovy sauce means that I don’t care for it and Alan adores it.

Agretti, on the other hand, is easy to describe because it looks exactly like a handful of grass.  When you buy it, it still has the dirt clinging to the roots of the blades.  It arrives sometime in April, and is best cooked quickly in a little olive oil with garlic – after getting rid of the roots and dirt, of course.

Agretti (Salsola soda)

Agretti with the dirt cleaned off its roots.

Both of these vegetables have very short growing seasons, so if you’ve always visited Italy in mid-May, you’d definitely never see punterella.  You might catch a glimpse of agretti at that time of year, but it would probably be limp and unappealing.

Next come carciofi (artichokes) and asparagi (asparagus).  You can enjoy carciofi all year long because they also sell it preserved in oil.  But if you want it fresh – something I highly recommend — you must be there at the right time. (See below)

English: Stacked artichokes in a fruit and veg...

When it’s asparagi season, it’s everywhere.  Unlike punterella and agretti, you can even buy it out of season, but that supply comes from Peru, and in the store, it’s relegated to a small box hidden in with some other foreign-grown, out-of-season vegetables.  People might buy it for having at home, but a restaurant wouldn’t offer it.  It couldn’t possibly have the same fresh flavor as the local asparagus in season, and that could cause a huge downgrade from the restaurant’s local customers – a fate no restaurant wants to suffer.

Porcini mushrooms are a specialty of our area. Since they cannot be successfully cultivated, locals-in-the-know tromp through the woods to gather them at just the right time.  I always thought they were a seasonal Fall food.  However, we had a friend who planned a September trip around cooking fresh porcini and he found the supply was very limited.  As with most of those independent foods that refuse to let man dictate their availability, it turns out there are more variables than just season.  Rainfall is also key, and that particular year there were many more porcini in June than in the Fall.

Precious fresh porcini being offered to our table.

And then during certain seasons, you will see people in what looks to me like fields of weeds, bending to pick…..something.  I have no idea what that something is, but it’s obviously something that, like porcini mushrooms, can’t be commercially produced.  As an American who has only a vague idea of how vegetables grow, I believe you have to be born into the right family to have the secrets of plant whereabouts and preparation passed down to you.  That knowledge is the agricultural version of the family treasure – a precious gift to be passed on to future generations.  I could always ask what they’re looking for, but then the sight of people in fields would lose its mystery, and when you’re a Dreamer – it’s not a bad thing to keep at least a little mystery in your life.

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