There’s a whole world of edible plants all around us, if only we open our eyes to it. That was the main message that the new Dean of the University of Gastronomic Sciences, Andrea Pieroni, had to share in a free tour of Bra that he personally guided as part of Cheese 2017.
The tour started right in front of the Slow Food International office in Piazza XX Settembre, where Pieroni was quick to bring the assorted group of UNISG students and enthusiasts to a linden tree on the edge of the car park. “Although it’s not a popular plant in Italian cuisine, it is an important part of traditional Romanian-style sauerkraut. The leaves are best picked in May, and have a taste similar to okra, with a somewhat viscous aftertaste.”
Around the corner, towards the far end of Piazza Spreitenbach, Pieroni showed us naturally growing common purslane, or Portulaca oleracea , which has firmly “taken root” in the local cuisine of Naples. The young stems are eaten in salads, and are crunchy, sour and succulent all at once. While it has been considered almost “undesirable” in traditional Northern Italian cuisine, it’s popularity in the South of the country originally arrives from the East, specifically Turkey, where it is one of the most commonly-used wild herbs.
Moving along down the Strada Montenero, where we found plentiful Taraxacum, more commonly known as the dandelion. Pieroni explained that the dandelion enjoys a sort of second spring in the late summer, and as such, its availability has made it an autumn favorite. They are commonly boiled and stewed with olive oil and garlic, though you can also produce honey with the flowers.
Further down the road, Pieroni spotted a young, flowerless blackberry plant. “We should pay more attention to the young shoots of these and other Rubus plants. They are common in urban settings, though they are being used less commonly nowadays because people no longer favor their astringent taste. But if you boil them briefly, there’ll be less tannins, and you solve the problem. The young shoots of rubus plants are also a wild vegetable rennet for making cheese (just as artichokes are also used for rennet).”
Growing by the side of a bus stop, we found wild mallow, Malva sylvestris. “The most important plant in the traditional herbal medicine of Italy,” Pieroni explained. “It’s made in a decoction, though we shouldn’t really cook the plant for a long time. But science doesn’t always correspond with folk traditions! It’s use came from the East, and it’s common in Turkish cuisine.” Further east, the Yazidis in Iraq and Syria use it’s leaves to wrap sarma (a sort of stuffed vine leaf), and its flowers in decorations.
Next up was Pieroni’s favorite wild plant of all: Clematis vitalba, known in English as old man’s beard or traveller’s joy. “It’s lightly toxic and produces a little inflammation on the skin. But the young shoots, when boiled and used in omelets, create one of the most unique and weird flavors in Italian cuisine.”
Chancing upon a broad-leafed dock, Pieroni revealed that it’s a much closer cousin of rhubarb than we might think, and if cooked, the result is distinctly rhubarb-like. “You can make marmelade from it, too!”
Further surprises were found in the garden of the Società Gastronomica building in Strada Madonna di Fey, starting white campion (sometimes known as bladder campion – Silene alba). “This is a crucial herb in Italian cuisine, one of the most common in the north-east for risottos and omelets. Though it’s also used with pork in Central Italy. It’s mild and round, and if it’s not cooked too long, you can appreciate a taste the is reminiscent of green peas, though it’s not a pulse.”
Returning to the historical overlap between food and medicine, Pieroni explained how the toxic Mercurialis perennis (dog’s mercury), while poisonous, was traditionally used in soups to “clean the intestine”, that is, as a laxative. “It shows the flexibility of traditional food culture.”
The penultimate plant we found was Silybum marianum, also known as the milk thistle, Saint Mary’s thistle or Scotch thistle. “It’s used mainly in Sardinia and the south. You remove the thorny part, the succulent stems, like an artichoke. These have a mild bitterness which is much loved. Interestingly, it was one of the only plants that was traditionally foraged by men rather than women, besides mushrooms. They were a common snack for shepherds out in the fields. Their consumption is unfortunately decreasing here because it is a time consuming practice. But lacto-fermentation with thistles is still practiced in the Middle East.”
Last of all, calamint (Clinopodium nepeta), known as nepeta or nepitella in Italian cuisine. “It’s use varies by region. In the north of Tuscany it’s usd when cooking porcini mushrooms, while further north it might be used when cooking snails or zucchini.”
Bringing this fascinating, practical lesson to a conclusion, the Dean of the University of Gastronomic Sciences encouraged all us to go forth and forage for ourselves. “Plants are everywhere. It’s practiced knowledge and not taught knowledge. You need to go out and do it! It can be a form self-education, and by sharing the experience, of mutual education. This was normal for our grandparents. And so it can be for us, too.”