Image © Concierge in Umbria
Spring is not only a time to appreciate the first tender flower buds and new leaf shoots signifying nature’s awakening from its winter slumber. It is also when Mother Nature challenges us to her great food scavenger hunt.
In Italy, most of all.
Fluffy fronds of fresh fennel provide a frilly backdrop to newly sprouted daisies. Spindly shoots of segmented, bamboo-like asparagus hide in ditches beside roads or in weeds among olive groves. Explosions of piercing blue star-shaped borage flowers lure you in while the tough, nettle-like stems tease you away.
Spring’s first plants, the most delicate shoots carrying the most subtly verdant flavors of the year, are rapidly springing up around the country, waiting for those food lovers with the patience and perseverance to capture them.
Whether you find yourself in Italy or at home this spring, take advantage of these short-lived spring foods if you can.
Fava Beans | Le Fave
Image © Concierge in Umbria
Fava beans come in a large, unappealing package, requiring layer after layer of peeling to reach the part worth eating. But believe us, it’s worth the wait. Known also as broad beans for their gargantuan (as far as beans go) size, favas are best in their early youth, while they are still tender enough to be eaten raw, dipped in salt or with a slice of Pecorino cheese.
One of the more interesting fava preparations we’ve encountered was this fave con la barbotta (fava beans with friend pig cheeks).
Fava Bean Recipes
Wild Asparagus | Asparagi Selvatici
Image © Concierge in Umbria
Like the elusive truffle, wild asparagus foraging locations are a guarded secret. Enthusiasts descend on their favorite spots as early as possible to beat out the competition. Related, though distinct from their cultivated cousins, wild asparagus must be eaten young and small, lest they become woody and inedible.
Though often saved for light, delicate preparations, such as lemon-scented risotto, wild asparagus can hold its own even in meaty dishes, like one of our favorite spring pastas at Ristorante Cesarino in Perugia, Rigatoni “alla carbonara” with sausage and wild asparagus.
Wild Asparagus Recipes
Borage | Boragine
Photo by Flickr user cvanstane
Each part of the borage plant – the star-shaped flowers, the herby leaves, and the prickly stems – has a flavor and use in the Italian kitchen that dates back to Roman times, when the plant was prized for its cucumber flavor.
Raviolis stuffed with a mixture of the whole plant are a March delicacy in Liguria, but you can make some parts of the plant last throughout the spring by candying, preserving or juicing the flowers.
Beet Greens, Rape or Broccoli Rabe | Bietole
Photo by Flickr user [http://www.flickr.com/photos/notahipster/]Stacy Spensley
A cousin of the beet (barbabietole in Italian), bietole greens are found among the weeds of a garden left wild for the winter. Packed with iron, fiber, and calcium, they’re a tasty add-on to many recipes, such as spinach gnudi or pasta with sausage, and even stupendous when simply sautéed with garlic.
Though the bietole you find wild in Italy aren’t quite broccoli rabe or sugar beet greens, those are the most likely substitutes you’ll come across in the U.S.
Wild Fennel | Finocchietto Selvatico
Image by Aldo Messina for Concierge in Umbria
While the fronds of cultivated fennel are often ignored in favor of the crisp, flavorful bulb, the situation is quite the reverse with wild fennel, prized for its greens.
Like dill, bits of fennel fronds can flavor pickles and other savory preserves, and like bietole, the greens make an excellent flavored addition to your pasta, upping nutrients while adding flavor.
Wild Fennel Recipes
Image by Flickr user *Debs*
Music has been at the heart of Italian culture since the Romans refined Greek musical drama. Italian composer still dominate opera’s “best of” lists and one of the country’s favorite sons, Giuseppe Verdi, is being feted this year on the occasion of his 200th Birthday (October 10).
As singers and music lovers, we love to share our passion for music with travelers to Italy. Like the country’s great art museums, Italy’s music festivals bring the country’s heritage to life.
Arena di Verona, Veneto
Image by Flickr user Kevin Poh
Opera at the Arena di Verona in Verona brings Italian history from different periods – Roman, baroque, neoclassical, and modern – together in a way you won’t find anywhere else. Set in one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters, performances begin once dark sets in, typically around 9pm in the summer. Candles are passed through the thousands of attendees to light the seating area and paths and imbue the space with an ancient timelessness that provides a lively contrast against the often high-art, hyper-modern set pieces. The Arena season runs from June 14 to September 8 and features 5 Verdi classics including perennial favorite Aida.
Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Umbria
Image © Concierge in Umbria
Since its inception in 1973, the Umbria Jazz Festival has grown into one of the most significant jazz festivals in the world, drawing in the top names in music – Miles Davis, B.B. King, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Carlos Santana and Van Morrison to name a few. The original July version of the festival now reaches beyond jazz, hosting some of the world’s top pop artists as well. It has become so popular it now has a winter spin-off, the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival held in December and January in Orvieto. From large stadium concerts to street musicians and small club performances by up and coming jazzistas it is a wonderfully chaotic and vibrant scene in the Umbrian capital during the festival. The 40th Anniversary Season runs from July 5-14 and features performances by John Legend, Diana Krall, Keith Jarrett, Sony Rollins, among others.
Baths of Caracalla, Rome
Image by Flickr user Teldridge+Keldridge
Each summer, Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera decamps from its location in the city to the ancient Baths of Caracalla for summer performances. Active from the 2nd to the 6th century AD, the baths were Rome’s second largest public baths. They remain remarkably intact and provide a suggestive backdrop for music productions. 2013 ScheduleTBA.
Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, Tuscany
Started by a friend of Puccini’s in 1930 with a production of La Boheme on a stage built right in the lake, the Puccini Festival has grown into one of the world’s top opera festivals. Now in the lakeside town where Puccini spent much of his life and composed many of his operas, a small outdoor amphitheater offers summer visitors the chance to enjoy the composer’s works in the natural setting that inspired them. Last year’s festival also hosted the international opera awards. The 59th Festival Puccini features 4 operas including a new production of Tosca and runs from July 12 to August 24.
Ravello Festival in Ravello, Amalfi Coast
Image by Flickr user Ell Brown
Another festival overlooking the water, the Ravello Festival is known colloquially as the “Wagner Festival,” due to its origin honoring Richard Wagner’s stay in the town in the 1880s. Over the last six decades, the festival has grown from its Wagnerian origins into a mélange of classical and modern music, as well as other performing and fine arts, with opportunities to meet the artists during the festival’s discussion groups. This year, the festival celebrates its own 60th anniversary along with the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth.
Stresa Festival in Stresa, Lake District
Image by Flickr user Pascal
When it comes to waterside music festivals, the Stresa Festival is the top event for views. All around Stresa, a resort town on Lake Maggiore in the temperate northern Lake District, musicians play in medieval castles and monasteries, Renaissance villas, and baroque palaces overlooking the lake. Confined more or less to one week, the festival packs in a wide gamut of musical styles – from classical to jazz, and groups – from world-renowned artists to up-and-coming student performers. The Stresa Festival begins on July 19 and offers events through the beginning of September.
Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Le Marche
Also commonly called the Pesaro Festival, the Rossini Opera Festival honors the popular opera and chamber music composer in his birthplace, Pesaro. Since 1980, the festival has produced not only his well-known works, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia and La cenerentola (Cinderella), but some of the more obscure of his 39 opera and chamber music compositions. The 2013 festival begins August 10 and features productions of Guillaume Tell, Mosè in Egitto, and L’italiana in Algeri.
Maggio Musicale in Florence, Tuscany
Image by Flickr user MITO Settembre Musica
Florence’s Maggio Musicale is not a single month, as its name would suggest (maggio is Italian for May), but rather two months of acclaimed musical concerts. The festival dates back to 1933, making it one of Italy’s oldest musical festivals. Each May and June, it ties together music and dance concerts and operas often centered on a theme, such as a period, topic, or composer. This year’s festival kicks off with a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo conducted by Zubin Mehta on May 2.
Image by Flickr user Cea
Titian, or Tiziano, as he is known in Italy, is equaled in elegance, technique, and artistic breadth only by his Renaissance contemporaries Raphael and Michelangelo.
During his lifetime, he was the darling of the Venetian Doge, and did much of his work in Venice and around the Veneto. Today, his masterpieces are scattered throughout Europe’s most prominent galleries from the Uffizi in Florence to the Prado in Madrid.
But thankfully for those visiting Rome this spring and summer, Titian’s greatest masterpieces are coming to you.
Titian at the Quirinale
Image by Flickr user Averain
For the first time, the Uffizi Gallery’s seductiveFlora will meet the frenetic, brutal torture scene The Flaying of Marsyas from the Kromeriz Gallery in the Czech Republic.
The span of Titian’s work, both geographically and chronologically, will be united in one place as never before in the “Tiziano” exhibition at Rome’s Scuderie del Quirinale from March 5th through June 16th.
Image by Flickr user Cea
Assembled by the greatest scholars of Titian’s work, the exhibit painstakingly documents the growth of the master, decade by decade. Both different versions of the same subject that Titian painted for different patrons and paintings on the same subject by the master and his apprentices will be juxtaposed to show the depth of his interpretation and technique.
Other Headlining Exhibitions
Image by Flickr user Kevin Poh
In Florence, the Uffizi been busy expanding the breadth of its display with a brand new wing. But the real gem is the new Michelangelo room, centered on the master’s sculpture “Sleeping Ariadne,” on display in the museum for the first time in two hundred years.
And if you find yourself in Verona for the 100th anniversary of the city’s iconic opera festival at the Roman Arena di Verona, stop into the Palazzo della Gran Guardia for their Rubens and Picasso exhibit. Nearby in Padova, the Palazzo Zabarella has assembled more than 120 works from Apulian impressionist De Nettis’s time in Rome.
06/02/13 20:47 Filed in: Switzerland
Image by Flickr user Carolyn Conner
Like main squares in towns all around Italy, Assisi’s Piazza del Comune is a microcosm of the entire city. The façade of a first-century Roman temple opens into a 15th-century Catholic church. The modern day square lies directly atop the Roman forum, the entrance to which is next to a 20th-century pastry shop housed in a Renaissance pharmacy framed by period sculptures. The town hall rubs shoulders with the Roman brothel.
Assisi revolves not only around the landmarks of the life of its most famous figures, St. Francis and St. Clare, but also what they stood for: finding peace in simplicity amidst a decadent world.
Image by Flickr user Rodrigo Soldon
The Basilicas of St. Francis and St. Clare
Lying at opposite ends of the sloping city, roughly equidistant from the main square, the basilicas of St. Francis and St. Clare balance each other in stone as the saints balanced each other in life. St. Clare and St. Francis form two halves of the same whole, the female yin to the male yang, the nuns that complete the work of the friars.
At the lower end of the city, the Basilica of St. Francis, holding the tomb of the saint, has drawn pilgrims since it was first constructed in 1228 - another church was even constructed on top of it to accommodate the adoration and reverence the saint drew. Among those who have come to Assisi, few have left a more lasting mark than the artists who adorned the walls, including Cimabue, Giotto, and Simone Martini.
For medieval Christians, many of whom were illiterate, these illustrations were the main means of understanding the life and works of the saint. And as they tell the story of St. Francis, the frescos also speak to us of the origin of modern painting, which many art historians believe lie within Giotto’s cycle of St. Francis’ life in the upper church.
Image by Flickr user Josh Friedman
Meanwhile, at the upper end of the city, the Basilica of St. Clare dates back to 1260 and preserves not only the remains of St. Clare, but also many relics of her and St. Francis’ lives. But none are more revered than the Cross of St. Damien, through which it is said that God first spoke to St. Francis.
The cross originally lived in the tiny, run-down church of St. Damien just outside Assisi. In the early days of his renouncement of worldly goods, the wooden figure of Jesus famously whispered to St. Francis: “Go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.”
And so it was here that St. Clare led her cloistered life. You can see where she prayed, where she slept, and where she performed her miracles. The deep peace present for the first devotees of St. Francis and St. Clare resonates in the walls even now.
Image by Flickr user Niels J. Buus Madsen
And after a guided walk through Assisi and its countryside, with the collected intentions of 800 hundred years of pilgrims, it is hard not to feel at peace yourself.
Spring at Terre Margaritelli vineyard near Perugia: © Concierge in Umbria
The first Monday of each month, we examine common questions our clients have about traveling to Italy. This month, we tackle a perennial stickler: when is the best time to visit Italy?
Each Italian season has its own charms. Summer brings music festivals and hiking in the Alps and Dolomites. Fall is for figs, foliage, and foraging for the elusive white truffle. And winter is time for skiing, Christmas holidays, and filling up on the hearty winter fare both require.
But we think spring is the best season of all.
Here are three reasons why:
Gull in Ischia: © Concierge in Umbria
In the summer, Italy is not only hot. In many places it is humid. And crowded. (Two conditions that definitely don’t help each other.) Thanks to its ample Mediterranean coastline, in much of Italy temperatures already creep into the 70s by April. Near the sea and in the tropical pocket around the Lake District, the weather is already nice enough for a bagno (dip in the water) in April or May.
Fried artichokes: © Concierge in Umbria
Though every season has its own delicacies, spring is blessed with more than most. Delicate stalks of wild asparagus find their way into subtle risottos and spring pasta “alla carbonara”. Fava beans, a snack that is the sign of warmer times on their way, are eaten on their own or sautéed as a side or base for soup or pasta. Edible fresh flowers garnish dishes while their non-edible cousins adorn the table and the yard.
Easter lunch: © Concierge in Umbria
One of the best spring experiences is actually food related. Foraging has remained an everyday practice in Italy, and spring is the best time to uncover nature's hidden treasures. But spring in Italy offers many other reasons to get outside. Many towns schedule their Palio in May, such as our favorite, the 900-year-old Festa dei Ceri (Festival of the Candles) in Gubbio. And if you can time your trip for Easter, Holy Week, and the Monday national holiday Pasquetta, you'll see a whole new side of Italian culture.
Spring is the ideal time to get out of Italy’s storied cities and experience the delights of its countryside and smaller towns. If you’re looking for ideas for your own spring Italian vacation, we’re happy to help.
CIU’s Maria Gabriella was featured in a video on Condé Nast Traveler’s Perrin Post this week. The video was taken during the Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialists Summit held at the Ritz-Carlton in Grand Cayman at the beginning of January.