Archive for bruscandoli


First day(s) of spring

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I’m sorry I didn’t think to check on the exact instant of the equinox in order to give Venice an appropriate little salute.  I knew this anniversary was imminent and now I’ve discovered it was two days ago.

In any case, most of the signs have been with us for a while now.  I can report that March came in like a lamb, but seeing how screwy the weather has become, I have no idea what sort of animal its departure is going to resemble.  Maybe a bumblebee bat or a star-nosed mole.  I’ll let you know.

Despite the polar blitz of February all over Europe, the peach blossoms from Sicily have made their annual appearance at the Rialto market. They've turned out to be more reliable than the blackbirds.

Little bouquets of carletti making their brief appearance at the market. I'll be honest: They have no flavor. The joy in making risotto of them rests (in my view) entirely on the fact that they are so few and so fleeting.

Yesterday we rowed to Sant’ Erasmo to forage for some carletti. Unhappily, we didn’t find any at all, which is slightly disturbing (check one “sign of spring” off the life list).  So we brought home a big bag full of dandelion greens instead. Lino’s happy because he says it’s good for “purifying the blood.”   My grandfather did the same, he said, by dosing himself with blackstrap molasses.  That’ll wake you up, no matter what it may do to your blood.  I intuit that this instinct is somehow related to the rousing-from-winter-lethargy/hibernation process we watch on the Discovery Channel.

Bruscandoli, or wild hops, deliver more flavor, but at a price: 4 euros per "etto," or hectogram. This works out to about $25 per pound -- not that you'd buy a pound. You might as well buy a hectogram of red diamonds.

Speaking of rousing, though, I am still awaiting one fundamental sign of spring, which is the blackbirds singing at dawn.  Every year I have heard one — evidently assigned to our neighborhood by the Chief Herald — which began to sing exactly at 4:00 AM.  It was uncanny.  I’m not saying I’ve been getting up at that hour specifically to hear it, though it would certainly be worth it.  But considering that I’m up anyway, its solitary cadenzas always made the morning beautiful even while it was still dark.

So far, I’ve heard one (1) blackbird singing at 6:30 PM.  Of course it can sing whenever it wants to, but I cannot fathom why I’m not hearing any before then. Frankly, I don’t understand how the sun — or me, for that matter — has managed to rise without it.

For those who may be craving an animal announcing spring, look for some seppie. This is a beautifully fresh one. If it could sing, I wouldn't be missing the blackbirds so much.

At any rate, my favorite phase of spring is already past.  Anybody can love spring when the flowers begin to bloom (I’ve already seen early blossoms sneaking out of their buds on a few plum and almond trees, and of course there will be a deluge of jasmine and wisteria before long).  But I love spring when the weather is still cold and unfriendly but you can just begin to detect tiny wisps of earlier sunlight and see even tinier buds on the trees just beginning to expand with their extremely tiny leaves, awaiting some signal I’ll never detect.

Once the daffodils come out, spring is so obvious that I consider it to be essentially over.

You can set your "Now It's Spring" watch by the Easter eggs in the window at Mascari, which displays the handmade Ur-egg each year. This phenomenon is roughly the size of an egg laid by the Great Elephant Bird of Madagascar (not made up), though it probably tastes better.


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First Day of Spring in Venice

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There ought to be a special Venetian handshake, or greeting, or food (what? no special food??) to mark this little anniversary.

But I did hear something that sounded like a mystic knock at the year’s door, loud enough to be heard but perhaps not enough to be noticed.

The knock that struck ever so faintly on the old cochlea was delivered at the Rialto market.  (You see? Of course food belongs in the picture. I was only testing you.)

These are carletti, and their moment is so fleeting you might not even see them the day you go to the market. Lino forages for them along the lagoon shoreline, and if you don't get them at just the right moment, whatever their parent plant may be will develop them into something inedible. They aren't cultivated anywhere; these little bouquets were picked by somebody, leaf by leaf.

Bruscandoli, or wild hops, stay in the market longer than the carletti. Both of these plants make an excellent risotto -- that appears to be their main mission in life.

Instead of an occult greeting, there is an assortment of poetry passed on by the ancients to acknowledge the moment. Once again, it comes from the fathomless store of balladry that Lino memorized as a lad. If his teachers had had any notion that his brain was going to retain all this material far, far into the distant decades — maybe even forever — they might have wondered if it would have been better to have him memorize something else.  Like algorithms, or the names of the then-68 member countries of the UN, or all the books of the Bible.

But poetry seems to have turned out to work better, because how often in any day or occasion would it be necessary, or even appreciated, to burst out with all the books of the Bible? Poetry, however, is always the Right Thing to say.

In exactly the same place (and perhaps bucket) where you can buy calicanthus in December, peach blossoms appear for a brief period in early spring.

So this morning, like every March 21, was marked by a spontaneous recitation of the vernal poesy of Giovanni Pascoli and Angiolo Silvio Novaro.  Read these to the mental music of blackbirds cantillating in the dawn, and the sound of the truck delivering the branches of peach blossoms from Sicily.

If I had time, I would research the reasons for selling peach blossoms, and not apple or apricot or almond or any other flowering tree. I myself would like to know the reasons, but for now I can only say that these are here because that’s what people do.  “People” meaning the growers, sellers, and buyers.  So don’t come asking for pear or loquat blossoms or any other frippery.

Valentino, by Giovanni Pascoli.  Lino launches into it like greeting an old friend:  “Oh! Valentino vestito di nuovo/come le brocche dei biancospini!/Solo, ai piedini provato dal rovo/porti la pelle de’ tuoi piedini…”

Biancospino, or common hawthorn, is one of the first heralds of spring.

Then there are lines he doesn’t remember so I’ll skip those, then the conclusion and the link to March: “… e venne/Marzo, e tu magro contadinello/restasti a mezzo…ma nudi i piedi, come un uccello:/come l’uccello venuto dal mare,/che tra il ciliegio salta, e non sa/ch’oltre il beccare, il cantare, l’amare/ci sia qualch’altra felicita’.”

Valentino is a poor country boy whose widowed mother survives by selling the eggs from their chickens. Winter is brutally hard and he has outgrown the shoes she made for him. The poet compares his bare feet to those of a bird.  But then in March come the first signs of spring, and he concludes, “like a bird that came from the sea, that leaps in the cherry tree, and doesn’t know that other than to eat, to sing, to love, there could be any other happiness.”

The second of these classics is a little paean to the soft rain of March, which makes the plants begin to bloom.

Che dice la pioggerellina di marzo? by Angiolo Silvio Novaro:

Che dice la pioggerellina di marzo/che picchia argentina/Sui tegoli vecchi/Del tetto, sui bruscoli secchi/Dell’orto, sul fico e sul moro/Ornati di gemmule d’oro?”

“What says the misty rain of March/that strikes silvery/On the old tiles/Of the roof, on the dry motes/Of the garden, on the fig and on the mulberry/Adorned with buds of gold?”

He goes on to say that winter is past, tomorrow spring will come out, trimmed with buds and frills,with bright sun, fresh violets, the beating of birds’ wings, nests, cries, swallows, and the stars of almond, white… The entire team, in other words, plus cheerleaders.

All this sounds much better in Italian, but in any language these poems and their ilk amount to a deep sigh of relief.  Sometimes it’s not so much that spring is here, but that winter is gone.  Less winter, more spring. If that doesn’t call for a poem, you may have a soul made of styrofoam.

No offense.

"Quando la rosa mete spin/xe bon el go' e el passarin." When the rose begins to bud, the go' and the passarini are good. In other words, to everything there is a season, and March is the moment for these creatures.

The passarini are looking good.

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Categories : Food, Nature, Venetian Food
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