Every year in early April the people of Umbria revel in spring-like days that seem to herald the end of a long winter. After months of greyness, nature turns on its Technicolor. Trees are so thick with new green you’d think someone had dipped them in mint syrup. Wisteria blooms like there’s no tomorrow, draping old walls and fences in all shades of purple. Hoopoes appear out of nowhere with their outlandish plumage and silly feathered crests. It's suddenly sunny and warm. Hope comes to mind.
Collectively, we exult and flee our drafty homes. We go for walks, pick wild asparagus, have lunch on the terrace. We put apples and soup away and make salads instead. We think summer is around the corner.
The simplest side of rural life is its outdoor side. If you're not a devotee of meditation, winter is boringly damp and windy. There’s nothing to do.
But there's a catch. Usually, April's spring-like days are teases that give way to winter's final bout of misery. The plantlets of basil I foolishly place outside are suddenly frozen, a mistake I seem to make annually. We have to turn heat back on, retrieve the sweaters and yes, make soup.
The last spasm of winter is a rite of spring. Usually there's another month of drizzle and wind. Colds come back with a vengeance.
Only in mid-May does the sun returns to stay. Our hibernation officially ends with Assisi’s Calendimaggio, a magnificent spring festival in which many local residents don medieval garb and hold four days of concerts, processions, crossbow tournaments, and medieval reenactments. All this culminates in the election of the Madonna Primavera, Lady Spring.
Spring is a feast for eyes and soul alike. Flea and flower markets flourish. Local hiking trails and mountain paths come alive with poppies, along with hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders.
We're reminded of why we choose to live here. We're also reminded of recipes with haven't made in a while, and into spring's kitchen we go. And who says soup can't come along for the ride?
Pasta with cannellini beans and chard (serves 4)
For the vegetable stock
— Soak the beans overnight, then rinse and drain. Place them in a pot in at least 10 cm (4 inches) water. Add the stock vegetables, cover and simmer for 1 to 3 hours (depending on the age and size of the beans) until tender.
— If you're using cooked beans, boil the stock vegetables in water for 10 minutes. Add the beans to the stock and boil for 10 more minutes.
— Wash and blanch the Swiss chard in 5 cm (2 inches) of boiling water for 3 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water to preserve its beautiful color. Squeeze excess moisture away with your hands and chop roughly. Dress with olive oil and salt. (The soup and chard can be prepared in advance and refrigerated.)
— About a half-hour before dinner bring a large pot of salted water to rolling boil and cook the pasta for 1 minute. Re-heat the chard.
— Meanwhile, sauté the garlic in olive oil until fragrant, less than a minute. Add the beans with a few ladles of the cooking liquid and bring to low boil. Salt lightly, sprinkle with a twist or two of black pepper and stir in the cooked pasta.
— Serve in large bowls topped with the chard and drizzled with only your very best olive oil.