Best of Sicily
Food & Wine
Map of Sicily
There was a time, before the age of hybrid crops, genetic engineering
and "agribusiness," when fruits and vegetables tasted better.
"Wild" salmon and mussels were fished from the seas, not harvested
from "farms." Rabbit and hare were hunted, not "raised."
Livestock wasn't "beefed up" with hormones. And flavours were
different. The good news is that a few of these untamed flavours still exist,
and Sicily's wild asparagus offers one of them. This rare delight is picked
each Spring in the mountains of Sicily. Like carduna
and wild thorny artichokes, it's something you'll
rarely find outside southern Italy or a few other parts of the Mediterranean.
Wild asparagus acutifolius (shown here) is a country cousin of
asparagus officinalis, the common domesticated variety, which has
a thicker stalk and sweeter taste. It may even be accurate to refer to wild
asparagus as an uncle or aunt of officinalis, but I'll leave that debate
to the botanical geneticists. Truth be told, wild asparagus, a perennial,
is sometimes grown on farms, but its flavour does not seem to have suffered
for the change of scenery.
Of course, there is some choice in the matter, as the sweeter, tender
"domesticated" asparagus is raised in Sicily and sold in supermarkets.
To find wild asparagus you'll probably have to venture into one of Sicily's
outdoor street markets during April or early May.
In Sicily the word sparacelli is still used in most regions to
refer to wild asparagus, though in the western part of the island sparacelli
also refers to wild broccoli. Asparagus, in one
form or another, is native to many areas around the world. It is the stalks
and buds that are eaten, as the sprouts are picked before they flower. Wild
Sicilian asparagus has slender, slightly purplish stalks and a rather bitter
taste compared to the more common "supermarket" variety (officinalis)
indigenous to parts of western Europe.
Asparagus, which is a diuretic, was cultivated by the ancient Egyptians,
Greeks and Romans, and a recipe survives from the compilation by Apicius.
Low in sodium, asparagus is a good source of several minerals, including
magnesium, calcium, and zinc, as well as folic acid, vitamins A, C, E and
K, and iron, selenium and potassium.
Sparagine, an amino acid, takes its name from asparagus, and is
cognate to the Sicilian word sparacelli. The Latin word is sparagus,
from the Greek asparagos. The Persian asparag meant "sprout"
Asparagus is not the kind of vegetable most of us want to eat raw. Wild
Sicilian asparagus is tougher than other varieties to begin with, so boiling
is recommended. It's great in a frittata, with sharp caciocavallo
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.