Springtime means people in fields, hunch-backed and scouring the ground for edible plants.
There's an undeniable love affair with nature when you pick through her spring fields between clover and daisies immersed in 'il verde' under a changing sky of painted clouds. Foraging for edible plants is a tradition handed down which stems from a place of hardship but also celebrates what nature offers, if we know where to look.
Edible plants are known as 'erbette spontanee' in Italian - spontaneous herbs/grasses.
Spontaneous, as in wild.
Types of foraging plants
Every region stocks a pantry of seasonal food, it goes without saying that the time of year plays a determining factor. After Winter's freeze, as the ground warms and seeds begin to sprout, a wide range of forageable plants suddenly appear, making April a busy month of tender buds.
Finding a dish featuring 'erbette spontanee' on a menu is always a wonderful surprise. A sure sign of an establishment cherishing the food from their land, you can assume it's freshly homemade, taking time to pick and prepare. That said, I was surprised to find wild edible plants for sale in markets! Whether they're cultivated or harvested wild, I could not tell.
Here are the plants we know growing at the foothills of the Dolomites, in local Veneto dialect:
Our favourite, it's seeded in our wild garden, but in order to cook with this wily plant, one needs to harvest a fair amount, say half a kilogram for a four person risotto. That's quite a bit of picking. We traditionally make risotto with sciopetin foraged from the fields above our house - think of it as delicate spinach in flavour. Only the tender tips from the low woody plant are picked, once these are washed, the top couple of leaves are blanched in boiling water and kept until needed or frozen. Frittata is another popular sciopetin dish as well as lasagne, known as pasticchio in Veneto.
Sciopetin /scho-pet-in/ or sciopet derives from sciopar - dialect slang for 'burst', referring to dainty seed pods shaped like upside-down bells from which the seeds shoot out. Francesco's grandmother from Venice calls them carletti, the official name is Silene Vulgaris.
These are known as wild asparagus for their similar shape. They are the new, spring shoots of the Luppolo/Hop plant whose bestie is the road-side blackberry bramble. Long, thin, dark-green and slightly bitter. Bruscandoli are an acquired taste, served as you would asparagus, with boiled eggs or in a quiche or risotto. They are hard to find and only handfuls are collected at a time, cleaned and cooked the same day.
Most likely derived from radice, root in Italian, perhaps because they're harvested low on the ground. The young leaves are picked as well as tight green buds from the plants we know as dandelions in early spring fields before becoming hardy and bitter. The leaves are typically cleaned and sautéed in olive oil and garlic until soft. Often added to spinach or other cooked leafy greens as they tend to be stringy, radicee add a slightly bitter edge to a mix served as a side and fondly known as erbe cotte in Veneto - cooked grasses. The buds are steamed and pickled in brine or vinegar, pairing beautifully with fatty soppressa (Veneto sausage-like salami) or other cured meats. Look out on Agriturismi menus or restaurants serving up local, seasonal produce.
Wild garlic growing in shady forests or under large trees in a spreading mass. The leaves emit a soft smell of fresh garlic which you can sense walking through the forest. Before the plant flowers, its leaves can be harvested to add to any dish, as you would garlic. Wonderful in a quiche or crushed with olive oil and salt to make a vivid green pesto which can be conserved for many months.
Asparagi di Rust
Amongst the woodland lie dark green, prickly bushes like holly with bright red berries. They're named Pungitopo because the branches are used to defend salami and soppressa from mice as they hang to dry: pungere - prick, topo - mouse.
In early spring, these versatile bushes shoot out new growth in the form of thin dark shoots, becoming a collector's item known as Rust /roost/.The ends of the prized shoots are dark green and woody but steam them for a while and the asparagus-like stalk becomes a sought-after culinary joy. They're bitter, beware, but special.
Chopped into a risotto or paired with boiled eggs, the stems are traditionally pickled whole in vinegar and served alongside local meats or cheeses as a Veneto antipasto.
There are some serious foragers in this part of the world who would never reveal their secret spots, but for the casual, happy-go-lucky wanderer, if you ever get the chance, spend a morning walking the fields, forests or country roads in search of an edible plant or two - it's wonderfully satisfying and a true way to taste the land. Make sure you know what you're picking, otherwise, opt for a local restaurant or Agriturismo for lunch.
Look out for our post on Agriturismo hospitality - living the land, coming soon.