A few weeks ago Carolyn and I were wandering off in the woods of the Soline Forest again near Pula and ran smack into a little boy of about 6 years-old and his mom. The boy ran right up to us and proclaimed something excitedly in Croatian and showed us a fist full of a green plant he had collected.
“Do you speak English?” we said to them. “Govorim Hrvastki!” (I speak Croatian!) the little boy said enthusiastically and ran off back in the woods to grab some more of the plant he carried. His mom laughed with us and said, “A little.” It always surprises me when someone says they speak “a little” English here because they always seem to be able to converse with us pretty well. They certainly know more English than we know Croatian.
Anyway, what the little boy was running around exuberantly collecting was wild asparagus which grows around the Croatian countryside during early spring. It apparently is a delicacy here and widely sought after like the truffles are in the fall. Croatians have been scouring the countryside for these little spears called “šparoge” for many centuries. They believe the plants have medicinal properties, and of course, with all of the vitamins and antioxidants packed in the asparagus, they have nutritional ones as well.
This little boy and his mom proceeded to show us what to look for in the brush to locate the small spears that were just bursting forth from the established plants. They are a lot thinner than the ones we are used to eating in the U.S. and apparently there are plenty to go around. The next thing we know, thanks to the young mom and her son, we were spotting them on our own.
I brought one with me to show Mike and James who were waiting for us at a local cafe while we explored. The waiter saw I had an asparagus in my hand and told us proudly he had just collected a large amount of them in Premantura the previous weekend and told us where to go to find our own. Much bigger than the one I had found, he said. I love it that the local people are so free with information about their area. Unfortunately, we never were able to go wild asparagus hunting in the woods in Premantura, but the next week I found them in the local market and bought a large bunch for about 25 kunas (~$4 USD).
The lady above sold them to me and told me the small spears are good in omelettes, with pasta, in salads or just on their own with Istrian olive oil. I made a pasta dish with the delicate shoots and they were really good, a little more pungent than the bigger ones we are used to, but I can definitely see their appeal. And the fact you can just go pick them on a pleasant day in spring for free makes them even more appealing.
Here is the dish I cooked with them for our dinner. It was very good, except that I didn’t do a very good job of taking off the bottom part of the stalk which was a little woody, so there were some left over stems on our plates. Whoops. Next time I’ll know better.
Living in such a fertile area like the Istrian Peninsula makes it easy to eat by the growing seasons. Having read the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver who discusses her family’s experience of a year of eating only locally-sourced food had inspired my book club and I to attempt to do it in New Orleans at one point, but it was a little difficult. I can see it would be a lot easier to do in a place like Istria where the neighborhoods are surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, and fig trees and other fruit trees grow like weeds around every corner.
Our neighbor’s trellis here in Pješčana Uvala hung heavy with a multitude of kiwi last October when we we visited, and I can’t wait till those bad boys are in season here. Right now it’s also strawberry season, so I’ve been scooping them up at the market, too. What can you forage for in the area surrounding your home? Could you live by eating just what is produced in your area by the season?