Extreme sports in Umbria: Wild asparagus

Listen, to have any street cred at all, a hobby has to generate that frisson of excitement that only comes with the knowledge that you may end up either dead or seriously maimed. (Though, if you are a bumbling idiot like I am, pretty much any banal activity can end up, if not mortal, at the very least resulting in a trip to the emergency room. See, for example, soap making.) Luckily one of the most popular pastimes in the Umbrian countryside, despite its innocuous sound, involves enough flirting with danger to justify that certain John Wayne swagger.

Take a walk on the wild side. Wild asparagus, that is.

Around mid-march, when the winter rains have pretty much petered out and the first warm spring sun shows promise, you begin to see cars parked along the country roads as the Umbrians turn out en masse to hunt wild asparagus. “Hunt” may seem a little melodramatic to describe what amounts to tromping through the woods picking shoots, but once you’ve been you realize that these wily little woodland cousins to domestic asparagus are not that easy to spot.

See one here?

How ‘bout here, smartypants?

I told you. Over the years, I’ve become pretty good at rousting them out and after an hour in the woods am able to return home with my head held high and a trophy bundle. If you have the time and patience (and stake out your territory early in the day…during peak asparagus season the woods get pretty picked over by the end of the morning and you often see folks climbing back into their cars at lunchtime loading ten or more bundles of the prized wild vegetable in their trunks) you can end up picking enough in one day to put up for the rest of the year.

Note the gloves. Keep reading.

These thin stalks pack a lot of punch with their sharp flavour, so are better used as a condiment than a side dish. Try them with egg pasta like tagliatelle, in a frittata, or as a risotto. They can also be quickly blanched and frozen so you can enjoy them even when they’re no longer in season (which finishes around the end of May).

Asparagus hunter defying death and scraped knees.

But what about the mortal danger part? you may be wondering. As you’re foraging along in the woods through bushes and high grass, and stooping down to stick your hands under fallen leaves and the prickly aspargus plants to snap off your prize, you may run into this guy:

Yikes. Gives me the heebies even in .jpeg

Vipers, or adders, whose venom can be fatal (or, if it’s your lucky day, can just lead to kidney damage), are native to the area around Assisi, and when the sun starts to warm the hillsides they begin to come out of hibernation. Generally, it’s a good idea to wear boots and gloves when you are out hunting your asparagus, and you can also use walking sticks to flush out any unwanted reptile friends before sticking your hands in scrub. I haven’t yet had a brush with anything more startling than a lizard (There are hilarious Park Service signs on Mount Subasio with tips to help you identify a viper, including a description of the shape of its pupils. Like I’m going to hang out long enough to get a good gander at any snake’s pupils, viper or not.) and I hope I never do, as I would probably hang up my asparagus hunting hat forever.

Sure, I want to have some street cred, but I’d like to live long enough to eat it, too.


  1. George |

    Why has no-one warned me of the dangers of vipers before going on my long runs around Assisi? A handful of wild asparagus is certainly worth the danger, but a few more miles to the annual total? Probably not!

    I can’t wait until I win the lottery and can visit any time of year, rather than just in the off-season! What I wouldn’t give to spend a year in Italy traveling around to the various festivals of food in season!

    • rebecca |

      @George…unless you’ve been running through uncut fields or brush, you’re fine. I’ve lived here 17 years and have yet to run across anything more dangerous than you common grass snake. Which is just fine with me.

  2. Donna |

    This made me laugh as yesterday, as per every Sunday in April, we have been out “hunting” aparagi in the lanes and woods around our village in Maremma and have even seen a viper (luckily still sleepy between two rocks). I freaked when we did (am English) but my spouse and my father-in law simply commenced an arguement as to whether it was or wasn’t a viper and proceeded to poke it to see its head a bit better in order to settle the debate…

    The women and girls in or party simply sighed and moved on…

    No gloves or boots, but wonderful frittata.

    Next year I’ll buy the whole protective outfit and look completely out of place in the beautiful spring countryside in La Maremma, but will feel safer.


    • rebecca |

      @Donna…you know, I’m conflicted about the whole viper thing. The folks around here generally operate under a “kill on sight” policy (apparently a side use of the common shovel is snake bopping), but that seems wrong. It’s not like they slither into our homes and swallow our babies…they only bother us if we bother them, and they’re just doing what snakes were programmed to do. I’ve never run across one, but I think I would just back up quietly and move away.

      And then start screaming like a maniac.

  3. Willemijn |

    I am (stupidly) always picking asparagus without gloves … so far all went well (luckily).
    Have made a small video on how to look for asparagus, get often asked by foreigners ow to find them:

    I will consider wearing better protective clothing next time. The viper does look terribly scary!

    • rebecca |

      @Willemijn…great video, thanks for posting the link! Since I’ve had such good luck, reptile-wise, all these years I admit I’ve become too cavalier about the gloves and boots thing, but I need to be more vigilant since now my young sons are avid “hunters” as well.

  4. Melissa Muldoon |

    The asparagus look wonderful…so thin and delicate and supple! Not at all like the hunky crunchy stalky things we get here! I’d battle a viper to experience such delicacies…I think! You go first and clear the way, I’m right there behind you!!

    • rebecca |

      @Melissa…we planted asparagus in our vegetable garden this year for the first time and, as so often happens, I have discovered what the super-fresh-right-from-the-garden version of the supermarket vegetable tastes like. I am a born-again asparagus fan! (Plus, no vipers in the garden. So far.)

  5. letizia |

    Indeed a few days ago we were picking asparagus and I felt my feet had gone under a twig. Then the twig moved away of its own accord. It felt quite rubbery on my toes. Most likely that was a water snake,they are more common than vipers. No other damage but I made very sure to look where I was going!

  6. Rosanna |

    Dam, I thought no snakes in Italy!!! HATE HATE HATE THEM!! Love asparagus though :)

    • rebecca |

      @Rosanna…I was recently in Hawaii (Kauai) where there are no snakes–and a great climate. That said, the island is absolutely overrun with roosters, as they have no natural predators. Snakes may be freaky, but they don’t wake you at four am with their crowing.

  7. Amy N |

    Beautiful snake! Is that your photo?

    I grew up in central Africa, where snakes were a basic and ever-present part of the fauna. We walked barefoot everywhere, through thick brush and gardens and everything in between. We were taught to always watch the ground where you put your feet, and to make noise when walking. Generally speaking the snakes heard us long before we got there, and got themselves out of the way. And we usually didn’t kill them. The only kill-on-sight snakes were mambas and cobras. In 13 years I never was even close to being bitten although I saw many many snakes.

    • rebecca |

      @Amy…no, not my photo (I think I would only have the sangfroid to snap a picture of a viper if there were a good 4 cm of bulletproof glass between us!)


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