A few weeks ago, I had an email from a reader to say that she was coming to Venice. Ann leaves the loveliest comments and we have corresponded for some time now online, so I was disappointed to find myself travelling at the exact time she is going to be in town. There is nothing so lovely as putting a face to a name, and I had visions of us sipping cappuccino in the sunshine and swapping stories about food. Instead I sent Ann a long and rambling email with a few recommendations, along with a list of things that she categorically must do. Above all, I insisted that she eat bruscandoli (wild hops). Bruscandoli, you see, are somewhat of a thing at this time of the year in Venice; they grow along the river banks, and we eat them in risotto, in frittata, with eggs, in pasta, what have you. They are utterly delightful. Arguably, no more so than white asparagus. Or those sweet, tiny artichokes. Or ruby red radicchio. But the truth about bruscandoli is that their season is so very short and so very unpredictable, that at the mere whisper of the name comes a little frisson of excitement. They are – for want of a better word – a ‘delicacy’.
The thing about seasonal food like this, is that it is rich with associations: it’s almost more about memories than taste. Just as turkey tastes of Christmas (or Thanksgiving, depending on where in the world you stand), more than it does of turkey. Or chocolate – a certain chocolate cake, perhaps – tastes of birthdays (depending on how your mother used to bake it), more than it does of chocolate. My father was always very keen on bruscandoli: he used to sauté them lightly then add a poached egg on top, eat them drenched in runny yellow yolk – with dousings of salt. Sometimes I cook them that way too. My godfather – I remember – would time his visits to Venice around bruscandoli season. He would correspond extensively with my mother, asking if she had sited them at the market yet, like a leopard scouting his prey. The years he didn’t visit, I would travel to London with bunches of bruscandoli on my lap, carefully wrapped in a damp tea towel to keep them fresh. When I eat bruscandoli I often think of my father, and of my godfather, and of all their eccentricities. But above all, when I eat bruscandoli I know that it is the beginning of Spring. [Read more…]