A beloved tradition takes place in Veneto, my region of origin, this time of the year, namely in the town of Bassano del Grappa. It is called ‘sparasada’ in dialect, and it consists in an abundant and convivial consumption of locally grown, fat and sweet white asparagus, dipped into an egg-y, oily sauce. It is a tradition linked to springtime, when asparagus come into season, and thus to Easter –litterally, a feast after the fast. A local saying indeed states:
Quando a Basan vien primavera,
se verze la cà e la sparasera!
[When springtime arrives in Bassano,
people open their houses as well as their asparagus patch!]
White asparagus are grown underground, protected from sunlight, to keep their pale hue. Those from Bassano are particularly sweet, thick and tender due to the soil composition as well as to the favorable microclimate. They have been grown in the area for centuries, celebrated through local fairs, and in recent time they have even obtained the certification of origin. Many works of art witness the presence of white asparagus in the area: a famous painting by Venetian artist Giovanbattista Piazzetta called “La Cena di Emmaus” clearly portraits a dish of white asparagus, prepared following the local tradition.
The classic way they serve them in Bassano is with hard boiled eggs, oil, salt, pepper, and either vinegar or lemon juice. The presence of eggs is also linked to springtime and Easter, symbolizing re-birth and fertility. Asparagus and eggs are indeed a perfect match, and are a great and unfussy way to start off Easter lunch, as well as an easy choice for the traditional Easter Monday picnic following a ‘scapagnata’ (hike).
After covering some of the most iconic Easter dishes, this year’s Easter edition of Italian Table Talk focuses on the traditional Easter Monday picnic, with seasonal dishes that are easy to transport and perfect served cold. Emiko has prepared a seasonal tart filled of the most tender and delicious artichokes; Giulia returns with a traditional cake of artichokes and stale bread, in perfect Tuscan spirit; and Jasmine has brought a beautiful green rice salad jewelled with the most tender seasonal produce (broad beans, peas and asparagus).
Of course, I am bringing white asparagus and eggs –a dish I became familiar with only in recent years thanks to Paolo, a friend from Bassano. We shared a flat in Padova for two years during University, and his generosity has always taken me off-guard. It came in many fashions, but mainly, it came in the form of food. Every year, for his birthday in April, he would drive from Padova to Bassano and bring back a stash of the hugest white asparagus I have ever seen, together with the most delicious-looking preserves (including pickled white asparagus!) prepared by the blessed hands of his mum, Agnese. For his birthday, then, it was a feast of white asparagus prepared in all fashions: inside the creamiest, pearl-white risotto, as a stuffing for crepes, wrapped in prosciutto, and, of course, with eggs.
There isn’t a real recipe for white asparagus and eggs, but rather a series of suggestions on how to cook the asparagus and how to serve the whole thing together. I chose to include an extract from a cookbook written in Venetian dialect as a reference, not only because it contains the most precious little tips to make the most of a simple dish like boiled white asparagus with hard boiled eggs, but it is also full of sense of humor. This is what is said about white asparagus and eggs, or sparasi e ovi:
Stando drio a la tradission vecia, se li deve cusinar cussì: Ligarli a mazetini de 6 par 6 (de più o de manco, conforme che i xe grossi); metarli in t’una pignata co tanta acqua fresca salada, ma ocio che le ponte de sti sparasi le dovarà sempre restar fora de l’acqua. Lassar che i bogia dazieto par 10-15 minuti da’l momento che vien sù el bogio. Ognitanto sponciarli con un stacadente par regolarse se i xe tenari e coti. Co i sarà ben tenari sulla parte bianca, desgiosarli (ma ocio de no rovinarghe le teste) e sistemarli torno torno de un piato de arzento, co le ponte voltae verso el centro de sto piato. Farghe intorno na corona de vovi duri despartii par metà.
Conzier: Ogniun dovarà rangiarse par conto suo e, in t’un cantonsin del so piatto el dovarà pareciarse: ogio, agro de limone, pizego de pevare e de sal; po, coi denti de un piron, el dovara schinzar drento a sto consier un vovo duro (dovarà risultar na salseta cremosa, che la xe proprio quela che ocore par tociarghe drento prima la testa de i sparasi e po anca el resto, fin che se trova tenaro). Par far sto lavoro e poder rancurar ben tuta la salseta, senza che la se sparpagna in te’l piato saria comodo de poter tigner un pocheto el piato in pendensa, ficandoghe parsoto un tochetin de pan, par alzarlo. Ma, le regole de la bona educassion le dixe che cussì…no va ben!
The asparagus should be tender enough to not require any peeling –just remove the very bottom if woody. Then, tie the asparagus six by six and cook them in plenty of salted water (starting from cold), with the tips out of the water so that they only gently steam rather than boil. They should cook for 10-15 minutes from when the water starts boiling, and you can check for doneness by poking them with a toothpick. Once ready. drain them well and arrange them on a platter (the original recipe says silver but any would do really, even a picnic container!). At the same time, hard boil the eggs, allow to cool, then peel and cut them in halves. Arrange around the asparagus.
For the seasoning, each person should help him or herself with sea salt, black pepper, olive oil and squeezed lemons (or white wine vinegar), making a mixture in a corner of the plate. The egg should be placed over this seasoning mixture and pressed with a fork, until a chunky cream forms. This will be your dipping ‘sauce’ for the asparagus. The seasoning can be done in advance, and transported separately if you are taking this dish with you on your hike and picnic.
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