-By Diana Maiola
I love Springtime in Italy. By the middle of March the already mild winter begins to subside and the days kissed by Mediterranean sunshine begin to get longer. Strolling through the streets of Rome it is very easy to distinguish locals from foreigners. Foreigners will have already traded their winter wardrobe for flip flops and short sleeves while the locals are still hanging on to their down jackets and cashmere scarves. Italians are “freeze babies”. They are horribly afraid of the cold and they fear a spontaneous draft as if it were the plague! For a woman, even wearing a sling back shoe with hosiery is considered a risk. All aches and pains from a headache, runny nose, sore knee or stiff neck are blamed on “Un Colpo di freddo” or as translated, a blast of cold.
Still, Spring is a time of celebration. Annual summer flowers are already being planted in weathered planters and beds as decoration. The winter fruits are still delicious, especially the blood oranges from Sicily. The olive trees are starting to reveal tiny clusters of olives which will mature come October and November and be ripe for harvest and fig trees are starting to reveal gumball sized figs.
Two of my favorite things to experience in Springtime are the wild asparagus and the abundance of artichokes that are available.
It is common to be driving with a local and all of a sudden, they pull to the side of the road in order to collect wild asparagus. The wild version of the asparagus is much more slender than the commercial version, sweet and mild in taste and adaptable to most any recipe. They really are a wonderful gift of Spring.
Now let’s talk artichokes. Coming from Cleveland I am used to seeing artichokes in the grocery store at an absorbent price of $2.00-$4.00 each. It always amazes me that someone out in sunny California has not decided to grow these wonderful vegetables in mass quantities in order to bring down the price a bit. I do not mind paying top dollar for something that I enjoy but, the problem is that I have seen what they cost here in Italy and so now I am spoiled. My best memory of making artichokes took place about 12 years ago. In the small town of my paternal ancestors a man comes into town about 2 times per week in the spring with a small truck full of artichokes. When the artichokes are collected, they are left in tact with their long stems. When peeled the stems are fully edible. A bunch or as the Italians refer to them as “un mazzo”, a bouquet of artichokes consists of 14 heads. Each bouquet is sold for 4 euro or 3 bouquets for 10 euro!! Yes, you are reading it correctly converted to US dollars that is about $4.48 for 14 artichokes with stems or about 32 cents each!! If you opt for the 3 for 10 deal it comes out to about 27 cents each. What a bargain!!
So, getting back to my favorite artichoke story. It was early morning and my cousin alerted me that the artichokevendor with his rickety truck was fast approaching. Instantly, I knew what I was making for lunch and I wanted 1 bouquet of artichokes to feed 5 people. I reached into my purse and the only thing I had was a twenty-euro bill. I threw the money over my balcony to my cousin and he flagged down the vendor. He was quick to catch the money, but he did not hear me say “bring me back one bouquet”. Instead, within about 7 minutes I had 6 heavy bouquets of artichokes with long stems equaling 84 individual heads!! NOW WHAT??!! Thinking fast on my feet has always been my strong suit, so I called my aunts to help me clean and prepare this mountain of artichokes. We basically spent the remainder
of the morning and then again into the early evening hours making artichokes. We fed 6 families that day and had a blast. I will remember it forever.
One of my favorite ways to prepare artichokes is stewed. After peeling the tough outer leaves and removing the choke, the artichokes are halved and then stewed slowly with white wine, water, garlic, parsley, olive oil, garlic and salt and pepper. When the artichokes are tender about 90 -120 min later and the broth is reduced by half, toast some good bread for dipping and enjoy!