When I think of Luca, I think of wild asparagus.
Luca and I were an odd couple, by all accounts; little (him) and large (me), quiet (me) and gregarious (him). But we were also a happy one, in fits and starts, when things were good. We had many things in common despite our obvious differences, and those things were the glue that held us together for as long as they did, and one of those things was our joint love of food. Luca loves to eat - like I do - but more significantly he loves to make food for people, to play host and to give people pleasure through food, and this is why I fell in love with him.
Walking, however, is not something Luca likes. I am a walker. I like to walk, with or without purpose, with or without dog, company, direction. Going for a walk is something I have done almost every day of my life since I was able to. It is something I do religiously with my dad, who is also a great walker, and with whom I have spent some of my happiest walks. Walking is often the thing I enjoy most in a day; a chance to be outside, to look at a view, to be in the open and feel the wind/rain/sun on my face. To see things from a different perspective and spot a beetle, a bird or a bee going about its business untroubled by the world around it is something I find infinitely therapeutic. I have a dog, which indisputably makes walking more pointed, but even without her I would walk every day at least once.
Luca, however, is not and never will be a walker.
'But WHY Letizia?' would be his inevitable response if I asked him to come with me.
A deeply practical being, Luca does not see the point of walking; to him it seems nothing other than a waste of time and energy that could be better spent doing something else, either working or relaxing. These are very clear categories for him, and walking belongs in neither of them. I can see his point, in practical terms, but I will never feel the same way.
The only way I could get Luca to walk with me was if there was wild asparagus to be picked. Foraging gave walking the purpose it otherwise lacked for Luca, and he proved himself to be a much more patient forager than I was. He would gather twice as much wild asparagus as me, dedicated to his cause as he was, undistracted by sky or sea view. He scoured the hedgerows with hawk-like intensity and would call me back if I got distracted and wandered off ahead.
"If you do something, Testa tra le Nuvole (head in the clouds), then at least do it well,' he would say, shaking his head in mock disapproval.
He was right. I was a somewhat half-hearted forager compared to him. We would drive home with a large bunch of asparagus on the dashboard, the majority gathered by him, our fingertips stained green and smelling of a mixture of fresh peas and pond weed, and he would cook it in a way I had never known asparagus cooked before I moved here and met Luca.
Wild asparagus grows all over the countryside here in my part of Sardinia, and my usually quiet outpost is full of parked cars at this time of year, as people drive out of Oristano for an afternoon's gathering. I used to almost get indignant about it, until I realised any claim to ownership of the land around me is utterly ridiculous, and now instead I congratulate them on their haul when I pass. It's a nicely communal activity, and the other day as I was walking the dog a man pulled up and stopped me saying,
'Have you already taken all of it over here then?' He was smiling.
After the rain is the best time, Luca says, when the little purple and green shoots poke up through the ground, and once you have your eye trained as he does you can't fail to spot the spears wherever you go. In fact, I now become frustrated with myself that every walk I have been on for the last 3 weeks I have been unable to see anything other than asparagus, and I seem unable to pass without picking it, so that every pocket of every jacket I now own has one or two wilted and forgotten spears inside it.
Wild asparagus has an extraordinary flavour. It is more bitter, more intense, more grassy than the cultivated variety; less milky and sweet. It tastes more of hops and truffles and is too stringy to be simply blanched until al dente. Instead it needs to be cooked long and slow, with plentiful oil and a little sliced onion, until it is soft and just collapsing, and can be stirred through a risotto or used to coat pasta (by this point it will be a slightly unappetising shade of kaki, so do not expect the verdant green of fat farmed asparagus). Every asparagus season previously I have made pasta, so this year I decided to make risotto, which is creamy and green-tasting and brings back memories of Luca in the way that only a certain food can.
I ate a big bowl of it, had a little weep for what we had that got lost, somewhere, along the way, and then I went for a walk.
Serves 2 as a primo, 1 as a main (I ate it all)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 small white onion, diced
a large handful of wild asparagus
100g risotto rice
large glass of white wine
250ml-300ml stock or water (I used water and it was fine, the asparagus has a strong enough flavour, but if you have chicken/veg stock even better)
2 tbsp grated parmesan
1 tbsp butter
salt, to taste
lemon zest/parsley/mint/wild fennel/drizzle of oil to garnish (not necessarily traditional, but I like a drizzle of oil and a scattering of fresh herbs, sometimes...not all times)
Warm the oil and butter in the pan and saute the diced onion over a low heat, for at least 10 or so minutes, until soft and translucent.
Meanwhile wash and trim the asparagus. The stalks are very woody so you will have to discard a significant length of them. Snap the spears at the natural tender point and then chop them into lengths.
Add the asparagus to the onion and add a splash of water. Place the lid on and stir occasionally, cooking the asparagus down for another 10 mins or so.
Add the rice to the pan and cook for a minute or two, then add the wine, and begin to stir. Add the stock/water, little by little, stirring all the time for about 14-16 minutes, until the rice is al dente and the mixture is soupy and creamy.
Remove from the heat, add salt to taste, then stir in the butter and cheese.
Serve, adorned with herbs/lemon/oil, or not, according to preference.