We are used to thinking of spring as an explosion of nature, a time of sunshine and crisp air, full of promise and earthly happiness. Yet, from a strictly rural point of view, spring is a time of sowing, rather than harvesting.
Once upon a time, when snow still covered the hills of the Langhe from November to March, spring coincided with the great work of the land: a period of enormous toil after the winter rest.
March was a month of promise: the pruning of the vines was finished and the fields were tilled for sowing. Very important was fertilisation with manure, whose very etymology (from the Latin laetus) indicates both «rejoicing» and «being fertile».
During spring, the foundations were laid for the summer and autumn harvests, those of true peasant abundance, creating the stocks to “survive” until nature’s subsequent rebirth.
Like every season, however, spring also has its fruits. Less exuberant than the June or September harvests, but typical of nature’s rebirth, characterized by freshness and joviality.
Asparagus is an ancient plant, the first traces of which have even been found in Mesopotamia. Asparag, in Iranian, means sprout.
Widespread throughout the Mediterranean basin, in the southern hills of Piedmont it has found a particular vocation. Especially in the hills of the Roero, on the left bank of the Tanaro river, where the sandy soils enhance its aromas.
Asparagus was grown in all family vegetable gardens and was one of the first vegetables to be harvested between March and April. The most classic recipes saw them boiled with butter, in omelettes, or combined with fresh chopped tuma in salads.
Like every season, spring also has its fruits. Less exuberant than the June harvests or the September vintages, but typical of nature’s rebirth, characterised by freshness and joviality.
Mistakenly called «wild asparagus», the livertin is the sprout of the hop, whose elongated shape resembles a thin asparagus.
In the Langhe, it grew almost everywhere: clinging to fences, among brambles, hanging from tree trunks. It was once a tradition to go out along the Tanaro river with large wicker baskets and combine the harvesting of livertin with that of dandelion to create tasty omelettes.
Today, it is much more difficult to find livertin in nature. Perhaps this is why it has become a “cult” ingredient.
Michelin-starred chefs have elected it as an icon of foraging (the trend in contemporary cuisine to use spontaneous, wild-gathered ingredients), an ambassador of very rich poor traditions.
Nettles and Ricotta Cheese (urtija e seirass)
Spring, in the Langhe, meant wild herbs. Since the kitchen garden was still bare, it was natural to turn to Mother Nature.
Women and children gathered mallow, dandelion, wild chicory, rosolaccio, borage, purslane.
Young, tender nettles were especially sought after for cooking soups, especially fritters to be accompanied with cow or sheep’s ricotta cheese.
Ricotta also brought a touch of spring, especially when it was the first “milking of the meadow”, i.e. when the animals could finally go back to grazing on the newly sprouted grass.
With the last winter cabbages, the “cuisinere” of the Langhe (women cooks) made delicious dishes: capunet, savoy cabbage rolls with meat, a true anthem against waste.
The tougher leaves of the cabbage were soaked in boiling water, while the leftover meat (veal or pork) formed the filling.
Potatoes, ricotta or rice could be added, but also just stale bread in milk. The result, although made of poor ingredients, was regal.
Capunets – baked in the oven and arranged in terracotta pans – resembled the finest fish fillets. So much so that, ironically, they were called pes coj, i.e. cabbage-fish: just as tasty, but not as expensive.
In a time marked by religious festivals, spring meant Easter. And Easter meant kid goat. Those who did not have it among their animals bought it from the Langa Astigiana, where goats were bred for the production of Robiola cheese.
But most slaughtered it at home: peasant families often had at least one crava (goat) and one sheep, the former for the meat (of the kids) and the latter for the tume (cheese produced from its milk).
Kid goat was a “sacred” dish: eaten almost exclusively on Resurrection Sunday, it metaphorically embodied Christ’s sacrificial victim, the lamb of innocence.
Fritto misto alla piemontese (fricassà mëscià)
Although today it is a seasonally adjusted dish, fritto misto heralded spring.
The late winter butchering, before and after Lent, allowed the people of the farmstead to enjoy the food of the nobility, meat.
If fillet and capocollo were sold to the butcher, the offal ended up straight in batter, dipped in breadcrumbs and fried in lard
Here is another dish of perfect peasant resilience, made by making the most of waste.
The original Piedmontese fritto misto included sweetbreads, kidneys, brains, liver and testicles served with black pudding on the feast day after slaughtering.
A dish for strong stomachs which, today, has been softened with more prized cuts of meat, vegetables, sweet semolina, ladyfingers and fruit.
Still, it remains one of the great traditions of Piedmontese cuisine, so much so that it used to appear as a main dish on wedding and reception menus.
Frogs (rane frite)
The thaw and spring rains swelled the streams of the Langhe, which, on April nights, croaked again.
The hunt for frogs, which were caught in large numbers and taken to the housewives, was on among the youngsters.
Battered and fried in hot lard, they became one of the tastiest dishes of the season. They were added to mixed fried foods, or supplemented meat-poor diets with their good protein intake.