7 Signs of Spring at the Market in Tuscany
If you’re traveling to Tuscany in the Spring, you’ll be greeted by majestic purple canopies of wisteria, fragrant citrus trees, and walls of lavender whose perfume stops you in your tracks before you even see where it’s coming from. Looking around at the locals, you may be confused to find a large chunk of Italians still dressed for mild Winter weather. Don’t check your calendar, April does exist in Italy, it just doesn’t get it’s own wardrobe. A toned-down Winter wardrobe of jackets and sensible shoes reigns until weekend trips to the beach commence in June.
Instead of busting out their shorts and tank tops, Tuscans head the market to get a taste of Spring. When you spot these seven foods at the market, you know it’s Spring in Tuscany, no matter what the wardrobe choices around you would otherwise suggest!
Asparagus stalks are best as fresh and local as possible, and while it’s true that you can say that about pretty much every type of produce, it’s especially true for the sweet and tender asparagus stalks that don’t hold up well to time and transportation. When looking for freshness, don’t worry much about color. Asparagus comes in shades of green, white and purple, depending on the light conditions of their cultivation. Look for firm, crisp stalks, and when in doubt remember that the key to spotting fresh vs world-weary asparagus is in the buds. They should be tight and closed, not starting to open up and dry out.
Asparagus is a versatile vegetable that goes well in salads, pasta dishes, and omelets. It is low in fat and calories, so Italians like to fix this problem by covering freshly-grilled asparagus with plenty of olive oil and salt, or chopping them up for a nice buttery risotto.
Peas, since they are easily cultivated throughout cold and cooler seasons and freeze well, have become a ubiquitous frozen-aisle staple that are perpetually underappreciated. In Tuscany the spring season comes with the arrival of fresh spring peas, cultivated in the hills during the winter. While they can be used to sweeten up soups, salads, and pastas, in Florence Piselli alla Fiorentina, fresh peas sauteed with olive oil, garlic, and pancetta, are a must-have side dish during the spring months!
Baccelli (Fava Beans)
In Italy you can tell that a food is important to a region when they insist on their own slang term for it. What in the rest of Italy are known as Fave (singular fava, where we get our name for Fava beans), in Tuscany are known as Baccelli.
Baccelli are among the most anticipated of the Spring arrivals in Tuscany. They grow perfectly in the Tuscan winter climate, which stays cool and humid but usually has low temperatures that don’t drop too far below zero, and plenty of sunshine. While they can be used in a variety of recipes, I prefer the Tuscan tradition of munching on baccelli paired with a fresh, soft Pecorino cheese.
Pecorino Fresco (fresh pecorino cheese)
Pecorino is the name for a large variety of cheese made with sheep’s milk. The most well-known pecorino in North America is the hard, sharp, and salty Pecorino Romano, but pecorino comes in all kinds of textures depending on the curing and ageing process. Fresh varieties of pecorino have a more delicate flavor, and are softer or downright creamy! While Pecorino is made all year round, fresh pecorino is associated with Spring, when sheep could again graze on fresh grass. Farmers would make this simple cheese from the sheep’s milk, sometimes ageing it for only a few days. In Tuscany this kind of Pecorino is called “Marzolino” since it was traditionally made in March.
In the spring expect to see creamy Pecorino Marzolino on any self-respecting cheese platter or tagliere. One of my favorite ways to enjoy fresh pecorino is paired with fresh plump Baccelli! An aged pecorino would overpower the baccelli, but a delicate new pecorino is the perfect compliment. The bittersweet, grassy flavor of the baccelli mirrors the mildly tart and sweet grassy herbal tones of the pecorino. Meanwhile, the soft, creamy texture of the pecorino is a pleasant contrast to the firm crunch of the baccelli.
Agretti (Salsola Soda)
The first time I saw bunches of agretti piled high in the market during the Spring, I was pretty confused. The leaves are long and grass-like, like chives, but they are thick and plump with a bright emerald green color that reminded me of seaweed. I wasn’t completely off-base with the seaweed guess, since it is a salt-tolerant plant that grows in the coastal regions of Italy. Agretti, also known as “barba di frate” (friar’s beard) has a pleasant crunch and a naturally salty flavor. By now you know that we love all veggies fresh, but agretti can actually only be bought fresh in-season, and should be eaten as soon as possible. After only a few days it starts to wilt and go bad. Agretti can be added to omelettes and quiches, and are a nice compliment to a spaghetti dish, but I enjoy them most simply sauteed and served as a side, with a drizzle of olive oil of course.
Carciofi Primaverili (Spring Artichokes)
Prickly on the outside but with a tender heart, artichokes are the king of mid-season cuisine. While Autumn generally gives us smaller artichokes and many are destined for various long-conservation industries, Spring artichokes are cultivated in coastal and central Italy. They are larger and considered more suited to head straight for local markets and kitchens. In Tuscany look for the proud “violetto toscano,” known for it’s purple color and tender leaves. The leaves should be tightly packed, with firm stems.
The versatility of artichokes in Italian dishes is unrivaled by other veggies. It is used in appetizers, first courses, and side dishes, and is meaty enough to be considered a good substitute for a second course when your vegetarian friends come to dinner. It can chopped in thin slices and eaten fresh in a salad, a more flavorful substitute for lettuce, or stuffed and baked until buttery soft.
For the fresh flavor of spring, don’t forget to pick up a few bunches of basil! The size of the basil leaves, and of course a sniff of the nose, will tell you all you need to know. For a more delicate aroma suitable for sauces or for the finishing touch on the perfect pizza margherita, buy larger basil leaves. For a more intense aroma for salads or making a rich flavorful pesto, opt for smaller, dark green leaves.
You’ll discover these and other local products that are at their freshest and most abundant in Tuscany during the Spring on our Gourmet Market Tour in Florence.
If Tuscany in Autumn is more your style, take a look at our 7 Must Try Foods in Tuscany During Autumn. We take pride in enjoying the culinary delights of every season, so no matter when you visit, join our Gourmet Tours in Florence to taste the best that the city has to offer!