My favourite country road stretches from my house into the nearby wood, shaded by four oak trees and speckled along the edges with flowers and herbs. Until a few years ago what attracted my attention were the closed buds of poppy, which I would pick up to guess the colour, and purple and yellow delicate field flowers, which I used to tie with a string to make a skimpy bouquet to be regally placed on the marble table in the living room.
Then my perspective changed, thanks largely to my grandmother, who began to show me edible wild herbs that grow unsuspected along the edge of the road. That is chicory, when it is young and tender is good in salads, otherwise you should cook it along with the wild Swiss chard you can forage in our field. That’s salad burnet tastes like a summer cucumber and it’s the queen of fresh green salads, that is wild lettuce instead. Forage dandelion before it blooms, it’s so good for your health, use poppy sprouts to make an unusual omelet…
These are names and definitions that encode an ancient knowledge. Man, an omnivorous animal, since the beginning faced the dilemma of choosing among an infinity range of food at his disposal. He gave names, he created traditions, recipes and shared knowledge that could lead his descendants to the recognition of what is good and edible, preventing them from what poisonous Nature could hide.
I already told you about one of my first experiences with foraging wild herbs, a morning spent with my grandmother. This would be a never ending theme, where tradition, culture, gastronomy and superstition have great influence. So, when every field in the countryside and each country road is blooming with dandelion, nettle and chicory, we decided to make these humble wild herbs queens and protagonists of this month’s Italian Table Talk.
Jasmine, just come back from an amazing experience in Sicily that made her fall in love with its amazing food, uses the wild fennel to make a traditional dish of pasta, pasta con le sarde a mare. Emiko, in Tuscany right now (yay!), found a good bunch of calamint on the walls around the Collegiata in Fucecchio and makes a spring dish, carciofi in umido. Valeria took a walk in the park close to her house in London and foraged nettle to make a pesto to go with scrambled eggs.
I asked my grandma to forage some herbs and she came back with a bag full of chicory and dandelion, just slightly too hard to be eaten raw but perfect once cooked. I made a generous portion of malfatti – perhaps even better than the classic ones made just with spinach – and I left a good half of the bag to finally make acquacotta with spring herbs.
Acquacotta is a typical Southern Tuscan soup, I already made a winter version with onions, tomatoes and celery. Though, the first time I ate acquacotta was in the late spring, I was spending a weekend in biodynamic farm in Maremma, in the province of Grosseto, and I was sitting with some friends at a long wooden table.
The owner of the farm, a sociable and talkative woman, brought to the table a huge heavy pot, wide and shallow, helped by her husband. She’d cooked the soup for hours on low flame with the foraged herbs of a dry late spring, then she’d broken the eggs of her chickens on top, letting them cook just enough time to have firm whites and runny yolks, thick as a syrup. She spooned some soup in every bowl, then she carefully lifted the eggs with a slotted spoon. To finish the dish a few slices of toasted bread previously rubbed with garlic.
- extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove of garlic
- 2 stalks of celery
- 2 red onions
- 4 tablespoons of tomato purée
- 300 g of mixed field greens (chicory, dandelion...)
- 1 chilli pepper
- 8 slices of Tuscan bread
- 4 eggs
- Aged Parmesan or pecorino cheese
- Start by peeling the onions, then wash the celery and dice the vegetables.
- In a saucepan or in a large cast iron pot sauté a clove of garlic, peeled and lightly crushed, with 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, then add the diced vegetables, the tomato sauce, the chilli pepper and a good pinch of salt.
- Let cook for a few minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon, then add 2 liters of hot water.
- After half an hour add the roughly chopped foraged herbs, then you can even forget the covered pot on the lowest heat for about 2 hours and a half.
- When the soup is almost ready toast the bread slices, rub them with a clove of garlic for a kick of flavour and tear them into pieces with your hands, distributing the bread at the bottom of 4 bowls.
- Shell the eggs in the pot where the soup is still simmering, taking care not to break the yolk: as soon as the egg whites are firm, remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and keep them warm in a dish.
- Distribute the soup into the bowls over the bread slices, put an egg in the centre of each bowl and season with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Top with a generous sprinkling of grated parmigiano or pecorino cheese and serve hot.
Not to lose a single post by the Italian Table talk girls, these are our Social Accounts:
- Emiko, her blog is Emikodavies.com, @emikodavies on Twitter, and her Pinterest
- Valeria, her blog is Life Love Food, @valerianecchio on Twitter, her FB Page and her Pinterest
- Jasmine, her blog is Labna.it, @labna on Twitter, her FB page and her Pinterest
- Juls, my Twitter @Julskitchen, FB page and Pinterest
The hashtag to follow the conversation on Italian Table talk on Twitter is #ITabletalk (easy, isn’t it?). We are curious to hear which are your experiences with foraged herbs that are blooming now in our countryside.