t’s that time of year. Asparagus has just arrived in the market, and with it fava beans, pods and all. In the country, we descend on these fresh arrivals like ravenous beasts, gobbling them up alongside flavorful new tomatoes. It’s high spring and we’re hungry for promises.
We weren’t always like this.
In London we could get snow peas in February, strawberries in December, and chestnuts in June. We grew used to supermarket largesse. But were we the richer for the experience? Not as it turned out. When we arrived in Italy, one of the things that struck me most was how good the food tasted. In Britain, even fine quality produce didn’t have the depth of flavor you find in Italy.
What can be frustrating in Italy is the lack of variety, particularly if you live in the country. Over the years, however, I learned to adjust to the rhythm of the seasons, and to embrace looking forward. The lack of tasty tomatoes in winter made them all the sweeter when they finally did arrive.
Sacrifice has another, unexpected advantage. They say that smell, and by association taste, is a major stimulant to memory. So it has proved to be for me. In London, with every possible ingredient at hand whenever I wanted, memories of what I liked most were diminished. I can’t remember ever schlepping round Sainsbury’s driven by happy recollections of some favorite dish. Having everything can mean forgetting eagerness.
Now, when I finally get my hands on fresh asparagus I’m overcome by wonderful anticipation. I can almost, but not quite taste its unique flavor. I think I remember, but the experience always surpasses the anticipation. No matter how much asparagus I eat until the season ends, I know its absence will bring yearning and the next year’s first tasting will always rekindle memory.
In our first year in Italy we visited an autumn fair where we saw a man beside a brazier selling roast chestnuts. I had to buy some. The instant the man handed over the small bag and I smelled the fragrant chestnuts I was transported back to my six-year-old self standing on a cold West End London street holding a similar bag. I remembered how it warmed my hands and gave me feeling of great happiness: finally something good to eat after a dismal shopping trip to the city. For all the times I later opened vacuum packed chestnuts for soup, I never once thought about the vendors (probably Italian, now that I do think about it). Yet they were once the highlight of a small girl’s trip to London.
Which is all the more reason to enjoy the asparagus, especially the wild variety that grows in the woods. I look forward to the strawberries and, looking ahead, I can almost taste the chestnuts. But I’m happy to wait for the real thing.