The beauties are tall and trim. They are firm with only a hint of padding in just the right places, their colouring translucent. They stand erect, row after row of them, waiting patiently to be judged on their magnificent attributes. But there will be no tiaras or bright sashes as trophies, because the lovelies on parade are asparagus. White asparagus, in fact, pride of the city of Bassano del Grappa, north of Padua. It is the very height of a season that sees all the local farmers busily harvesting and the citys restaurants celebrating this prized vegetable on their menus.
However, asparagus is not the only attraction of this small, walled city of 48,000 inhabitants in the Veneto heartland. Set in the southern foothills of the Alps, with the Brenta river eeling through the western side of town, Bassano came under Venetian domination in the early 1400s. La Serenissimas imprint remained for nearly 400 years, and Bassano absorbed some of its lovely architecture, its language, its culture, its industriousness. Walk through either of the two surviving stone gates that lead into the centre and before long there will be a gothic window with leaded glass, a Palladian-inspired faade with statues gazing down from the parapet, balustrades. Voices will be speaking in lilting Venetian accents. And scarcely a few kilometres away small and medium-sized factories flourish, emblematic of the regions energy, producing furniture, youthful fashion, refined oil products and those little foil lids that seal just about every yoghurt pot south of the Alps.
The sense of industry is in the local genes; the bassanesi have a long history of hard work. Take their association with ceramics, for instance. Early producers such as the Manifattura Manardi were already hard at work by 1669, making distinctive blue-and-white pharmacy jars, decorative objets coloured a milky white, and garlanded or flower-patterned tableware for the lite. Indeed, Manardi was reckoned to be the most important ceramic works of the Veneto at the time. The Manifattura Antonibon, based in nearby Nove, was another famous producer. Today the handsome 18th-century Palazzo Sturm in Via Ferracina houses the ceramic museum, where the full range of Bassano ceramics from over the centuries is displayed in remarkable stuccoed and frescoed rooms.
Another early success story was that of the local Remondini family. In 1660 Giovan Antonio founded the family publishing and printing business, turning out prayer books, images of saints, fairy tales and prints of popular motifs. In time, the business expanded into wallpaper and patterned lining paper, which became all the vogue for covering the insides of cabinets, cupboards and dresser drawers. By 1750, the Remondini were employing at least 10 per cent of the towns population of 8,000. They operated 18 printing presses, 24 copperplate presses and four paper mills, and owned a foundry which produced lead type. They produced quality gold foil, floral and paisley printed paper, marbled and tortoiseshell-patterned papers. They printed school books, calling cards, maps and playing cards. They even boasted early mail-order catalogues. Remondini and Bassano were, by then, rather like Fiat and Turin or General Motors and Detroit: it was an early company town. Ups and downs followed and businesses changed hands, but Bassano still turns out fine paper and lovely ceramics.
However, it is asparagus officinalis that monopolises the spotlight in this city for nearly one-third of the year, starting in late winter. This fleshy member of the lily family was known to the ancient Persians. The Romans grew it in their private gardens. Egyptians and Syrians were also familiar with it. To all of them, this vegetable shoot was not only tasty but deemed useful as a diuretic and a laxative. Some called it saparu keras, others knew it as asparag. The English called it sparrow grass. In the Veneto, one locally-favoured legend holds that St Anthony of Padua brought asparagus from Africa to the Bassano area when he came to try to calm down the local ruling tyrant, Ezzelino III, in the early 1200s. Having accomplished his mission, he headed back to Padua, planting seeds along the road between Bassano and nearby Ros.
Whatever the truth, Bassano agronomist Carlo Grandesso points out that: Our climate here is just right. We rarely get fog and we are protected from bad cold spells by the ring of mountains around us. And the soil is just the way they like it not too stony. Italy ranks as the third largest producer of white asparagus in the European Union, and between large and small, there are an estimated 200 farmers in the Bassano area growing the vegetable. The rest of Italys yield comes from elsewhere in the Veneto, Tuscany and Lombardy.
Rinaldo and Bertilla Frigo at Ros are among the areas leading asparagus growers. On a good day, they harvest perhaps 40 kg. They have been persuaded to take visitors for a trudge through the muddy rows of their two kilometres of cultivated fields to see how it is done first hand. The plant itself is beneath the mounded earth covered in black plastic sheeting. The trick to keeping it white is to ensure that it never sees the light of day. Rinaldo lifts the black plastic covering and his eyes scan the surface. Then he goes to work with a metre-long crowbar-like device known as a sgorbia. One end of the metal bar serves as a miniature shovel to dig gently into the soil. When the white sprout appears, he switches the bar around; the other end is sharp and is used to cut the stalk. Bertilla has very good eyesight and can spot exactly where the action is. Ive been growing and harvesting them all my life. I should know how to find them, she laughs.
She goes on to explain: Once weve picked a stalk, we cover over the hole and smooth the surface with a large rectangular wooden trowel, the fraton. When we return the next day for a new batch, we look for the slightest shift in the soil, even a hint of movement, or a crack. That means that overnight, as fast as mushrooms, something has developed. She and her husband collect ten asparagus in 15 minutes. Back inside the shed, loose dirt is brushed off the stalks and fibrous threads are peeled from the surface. Head first, the asparagus are aligned in a measuring box and a guillotine-like blade is brought down to trim the bottoms. Then the asparagus are bound into wheels , ready for market. Picking up a few leftover stubs from the table, Bertilla passes them around for a snack. Try one. They are so tender they dont even need cooking. She is right.
The citys civic museum flanks the S. Francesco church in Piazza Garibaldi. Housed in a former convent with a lovely cloister at the entrance, the museum is famous for its collection of paintings by the Bassano-born Jacopo dal Ponte, who painted for much of the 1500s. His Baptism of S. Lucilla, her extravagant white gown glimmering in beamed light, is particularly magical. The painter also decorated a number of the faades of Bassano buildings, some of which were removed and brought into the museum for safekeeping. Also noteworthy are the studies and plaster casts of artist Antonio Canova, who was born and buried in nearby Possagno.
Bassano is a hilly community and it is a steepish plunge from the museum to the most picturesque and well-known feature of all: the wooden bridge spanning the Brenta river. Depending on who you listen to, it is variously called Ponte Vecchio, Ponte degli Alpini or Ponte del Palladio. Take your pick. The very earliest records referring to a crossing over the Brenta at Bassano go back to the early 1200s; most likely it was built of wood, which was more flexible and withstood the punishing floods that frequently hit the town. It was after one such destructive washing, in 1567, that the famous Vicenza architect Andrea Palladio stepped in with the definitive design. Its roof and elegant balustrades have long made it a popular place to stroll. Like the beloved bridge at Avignon, this one has inspired a popular song all of its own, Sul ponte di Bassano (l ci darem la mano/l ci darem la mano/ed un bacin damor). On the eastern side is Nardinis grapperia, which has been around for over 200 years. Throughout the day, throngs gathering there are served a house aperitivo that does not pack quite the punch of grappa.
At the century-old Antico Ristorante Cardellino, chef Ettore Artico produces asparagus wrapped in crepes and au gratin. But his own special dish is a moist little baked timbale of white asparagus served hot with a delicate fondue of yet more of them. They lend themselves to a lot of dishes, Artico says proudly.
At the Belvedere Hotel each spring, Bassano-born chef Alex Lorenzon, 28, pulls out all the stops. White asparagus is served in every possible manner: deep fried in batter, wrapped in prosciutto, pureed over white polenta and so on. The momentum is kept up with sweet-and-sour cold salads of speck and asparagus, two-tiered soups, pasta dishes and even asparagus ice cream. But the vegetable is at its best when presented in the most traditional bassanese manner. A steaming plate of boiled stalks is brought out, together with hard-boiled eggs, still in their shells. You crack open the eggs and mash them well with your fork, someone at the table coaches, adding a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Then, one stalk at a time, gouge channels the full length of the asparagus with the prongs of your fork. Heap a little of the egg mixture onto the stalk and resting it on your fork, lift it carefully towards your mouth. Simple. And simply delicious. Just like the town itself.