Spring has sprung, which means all of Italy is celebrating the blooming of delicious seasonal vegetables. Each region has its favorite; Romans look forward to a bitter green called puntarella, a form of chicory that flourishes in Lazio, while Puglia enjoys lampascioni, an onion-like bulb harvested in the spring that becomes a delicacy when preserved in a vinegar and olive oil. And in the northeastern region of Veneto, it is all about asparagus.
Each year at the end of April, the entire area becomes asparagus obsessed, with festivals taking place across the region. From the white asparagus of Bassano to the wild sparasina of Pigozzo, each local delight is celebrated.
Although Bassano del Grappa is best known the powerful liquor that bears part of its name, Italians know it as the birthplace of white asparagus, a sweet variety grown entirely underground. The asparago bianco came about by accident. In the 1500s, Bassano was hit with a hailstorm destroying the asparagus crop, forcing farmers to harvest the vegetable beneath the soil. Upon tasting the asparagus, which were white in color due to the lack of sunlight, farmers were astounded to find how tasty and tender it was and began to cultivate it underground. It became an instant success, as indicated by records from the mid-1500s. A receipt from 1534 lists the white asparagus among the delicacies purchased for a banquet.
Because of its connection with the vegetable, Bassano hosts one of the largest asparagus festivals in the region. To kick off the feast, local restaurants unite for a traditional buffet in an 18th century villa outside of town. The banquet is named ovi e sparasi or asparagus and eggs, a classic Bassanese dish which consists of soft-boiled eggs and olive oil mixed into a simple sauce. Throughout the week, restaurants offer all-asparagus menus – from creamy asparago soup to cheesecake made with asparagus compote for dessert.
Additional white asparagus festivals take place in small towns in the Bassano area, most notably in Treviso, Vazzola, Ormelle and Morgano, yet the most esteemed are those held in Badoere and Cimadolmo. Both towns have asparagus designated as PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), a testament to the difficulty farmers have harvesting the vegetable. Kept from the sun in manicured dirt mounds, it must be painstakingly cut at just the right length and thickness. Yet all of this hard work pays off, as the asparagus from these towns are among the most coveted in Italy. During the festivals, hundreds of aficionados flock to the town to feast on the stalks, which are best eaten a few hours out of the ground. In Badoere, exhibitions line the streets with the best producers in the area displaying their precious goods.
The Festa della Sparasina or Wild Asparagus Festival, is an annual event in Pigozzo, a small Cimbrian village situated a few miles from Verona. In an area uncontaminated by tourism and surrounded by rich vegetation, the sparasina is second to none. Popular at Pigozzo’s festival are sparasina pâté, an asparagus spread served with bruschetta and sparasina risotto, rice made with herbs and spices. In Pigozzo, the festival is more than just a culinary event. Locals take great pride in their asparagus, offering free tours through the woods, explaining the history of the vegetable, how to recognize it and how to harvest the early spring vegetable.