One Day, Yes; One Day, No
Time is running out to finish olive tree pruning before the summer arrives in Puglia. With the capricious spring we’re experiencing, though, summer feels awfully far away. One day we awake to brilliant blue skies and warm sun on our faces—it’s 70 degrees and we want to go to the beach. The next day, cruel north winds are howling through our hill town’s nooks and crannies, followed by drenching rains that course down the cobblestones like a flash flood.
We’re learning that spring weather here is a lot like the Italian maxim used to prescribe the ideal frequency of olive tree pruning. It seems you have to prune your trees every other year for maximum olive production, so our neighbors say “Un anno, si; un anno, no” or “one year, yes; one year, no.” Sunny skies in early spring, thankfully, can be counted on to appear a little more often: one day, yes; one day, no. Meanwhile, we just keep on pruning, regardless of the weather.
My husband, Brian, has taken to this pruning challenge like a champion. He has apprenticed himself to Domenico, the father of a friend of ours, who has made it his business to teach Brian everything he knows about the practical arts of orchard and grove. Brian and Domenico spend a day on Domenico’s land, then the next on ours, working their way through the various pruning challenges they find. Every tree represents a teachable moment and Brian is an eager pupil. In the evening, he supplements the hands-on tutorial with quality time glued to a series of YouTube pruning videos. It seems that pruning olive trees isn’t as straightforward as it is with fruit trees, but everyone agrees that you need to trim much more than you think you do. It’s a scary business.
Since our land hadn’t been tended as carefully in the past as we would have liked, there’s a lot of remedial work to be done if we hope to see bountiful olive harvests in our future. Rampant growth of non-productive saplings leads to a reduced olive yield at harvest time, so they all must be stripped away. So this year is a “si” year. Brian hopes to reach each and every one of our 100 olive trees before summer’s heat calls a halt. But 100 trees are daunting for one person to manage, so Brian starts early, comes home for lunch like a proper Italian, and returns to the grove until it’s dark.
Armed with a hand saw, some lethal clippers, a positively medieval scythe called a roncola and a zappa, a hoe-like affair with a pick attached to one end, Brian has learned to size up each tree and all of its idiosyncrasies before leaping in and doing battle. And it is a battle. Some of our trees are hundreds and hundreds of years old, reaching more than 30 feet high. At their core, it’s a jungle of new saplings, all pushing relentlessly skyward in search of light. They all have to go. Domenico stops by now and then with surprisingly little to say except to comment that Brian has “ . . . una buona manualita’ “(he’s good with his hands). We take this as a hearty compliment since we know Brian would hear all about any shortcomings, let alone fatal errors.
My job in all of this is defined by Italian gender rules. I’m in charge of lunch, which I love. Spring may still be slightly elusive, but the spring primizie (the first spring produce) has arrived in the markets and lunch at our house is an ode to all of it. I’m relentlessly coaxing the arrival of longer, lighter and warmer days through the spring green palette of new peas, fava beans, asparagus, fennel and chard. If spring is holding back, it’s not for any lack of effort in the kitchen.
Here’s a recipe for a wild asparagus risotto that is really a template for any tender spring produce you’d like to use. Just make sure that the vegetable you choose to showcase is young, fresh and flavorful and everything else will turn out just fine. If you feel you need more hands-on help to tackle risotto, here’s a terrific article with especially helpful photos. And no, risotto is not particularly Pugliese, but sometimes the deceptively light taste of a perfectly balanced risotto is exactly what’s needed, regardless of where you live.
Risotto agli Asparagi Spontanee—Wild Asparagus Risotto
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock (look for an organic brand and make sure it’s flavorful)
4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onions
1 1/2 Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup thin, young asparagus sliced on the diagonal into 1/2 inch pieces, rough and woody stalk discarded (wild, if you can find it; if not, try also fresh, young English peas or fresh fava beans with their skins removed)
1/2 tsp. freshly grated lemon zest
1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano
3-4 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring chicken stock to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Reduce the heat and keep at a bare simmer.
Heat 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil in a 3-4 quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent. This may take as long as 8-10 minutes. Don’t let it turn brown.
Add rice and cook, stirring constantly, for a few minutes until the rice is warm and shiny. Add wine, bring to a simmer, stirring, until it is absorbed.
Add one cup of the hot stock and cook at a strong simmer, stirring constantly, until it is absorbed. Continue adding stock, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly and letting each addition be absorbed before adding the next one, until the rice is tender and creamy but still al dente, about 18 to 20 minutes. Make sure there is still some liquid in the rice; it will be absorbed as the risotto cools. Add the asparagus or other vegetable, lemon zest, Parmigiano, remaining extra virgin olive oil and freshly ground black pepper. Incorporate these last additions thoroughly then taste for salt.
Serve immediately with extra Parmigiano for those who wish to gild the lily.
Serves to 6 to 8 as a first course or 4 as a main course.
Note: Extra virgin olive oil is not strictly orthodox in risotto, which is, after all, a northern Italian plate that is always made with butter. I find extra virgin olive oil to render a lighter, more integrated risotto, but realize that this is heresy in some circles. Proceed accordingly to you your own tastes, substituting top quality butter at a 1:1 ratio for the extra virgin olive oil.
Additional note: If you use fava beans, here’s a neat trick to make short (well, shorter) work of their preparation. Pod the beans, then submerge them in boiling water for about 3-4 minutes. Drain, then cool them enough to handle them. Using your thumb, make a slit in the side of the green fava bean’s outer skin, popping the grass green fava out of its husk. They’re slippery little guys, so stay focused. It’s painstaking work, but much easier than trying to remove the skin without blanching them first. These peeled favas will reward you handsomely.