You’re bound to have seen them in the countryside: men and women, often elderly, bent over double as they forage and pluck in fields and on grassy verges of roads, tossing their pickings into a sack. What are they gathering so diligently? It’s no mystery. They’re reaping what you and I buy at the market or greengrocer. They’ll be carrying home to their dinner table, absolutely free and absolutely fresh, what you and I get for money and never that fresh: insalate di campo, herbs and other edible wild plants. Keenly scouring the ground along stone walls, under olive trees and in meadows, they are seeking wild asparagus, fennel, arugula, chives, nettles, nepitella and dandelion, among myriad other delicacies, depending on the time of the year.
Living off the land sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? But before you grab your sack and charge into the countryside, heed this warning: not everything sprouting from the ground is comestible. Gradually ease into your rustic adventure by picking only what you recognize. Get a book with pictures and study it carefully. Even better, find someone who is an old hand at plant-hunting and ask if you can tag along. Unless the old hand is furtively tracking down the much coveted wild asparagus in secret locations, he’ll probably be happy to share his knowledge.
Undoubtedly the most familiar edible wild plant is the dandelion, known in Italian as tarassaco or dente di lione. Though despised as a weed by gardeners, the dandelion is in fact a rich source of minerals, including more iron than spinach, and it has more vitamin A than carrots. Pick the leaves in the spring before the dandelion begins to flower, selecting the smallest, light green leaves, unless you happen to like a particularly bitter taste. The leaves (which should be torn rather than cut, a procedure recommended for all leafy vegetables) can be served as a salad, either alone or mixed with other greens. Crisply fried bacon thrown into a dandelion salad contributes a pleasantly contrasting flavour and texture. Also try sautéing the leaves, adding garlic and salt. Later, in the summer, gather the dandelion flowers, dip them in batter and fry them as you would zucchini flowers.
For most of us nettles are associated with painful rashes on legs and hands. But believe it or not, the ubiquitous ortica is an edible plant, delicious both raw and cooked. It is full of proteins and contains many minerals, not to mention vitamins A, C and K. So, don gloves, cover your legs and collect the delicate uppermost leaves to use in salads, frittate or as filling for ravioli. You can also throw nettles into soups or steam or sauté them, like spinach. Eat the leaves as soon as possible after picking, since both their flavour and nutritious qualities diminish with the passing hours.
Wild fennel, finocchio selvatico, differs from the cultivated variety in both shape and intensity of flavour. Instead of having a bulbous bulb with long stems topped by a few fronds, wild fennel has a diminutive, slim and flat bulb topped by masses of fronds. In early spring when the leaves first poke out of the ground, they are tiny and without much flavour. By April-May, wild fennel is at its prime, ready to embrace any dish it meets with an unforgettably aromatic intensity. Dig into the soil to get a bit of the bulb in addition to the leaves. Toss a handful of the leaves and chopped bulb into a tomato sauce (with sweet black olives, such as the olive nostrali sold at Esselunga delicatessens or the olive leccine found at the Mercato di S.Ambrogio). Wild fennel also combines well with pork, chicken or fish. In late summer gather the seeds to use throughout the winter for pasta sauces and meat dishes – their flavour is more intense than that of the cultivated seeds supplied by your erborista.
If you’ve eaten only the garden variety of arugula you’ll be amazed at the much more tangy and pungent taste of rughetta selvatica. Not as commonly found as wild fennel in the fields around Florence, it also goes to seed much earlier. Best gathered between the second half of March and early April, the dark green leaves are superb in salads and can also be added to cooked dishes such as pasta and risotto. Because the flavour of wild arugula is so intense, try eliminating vinegar from the salad dressing, using just salt and olive oil.
When porcini vendors set up their market stalls in August-September, they lay sprays of nepitella, a wild mint sometimes called mentuccia, across the heaped mushrooms. Nepitella, which proliferates along roads and in fields, is the perfect herb to bring out the best flavours lurking not only in mushrooms but also in zucchini, aubergines and artichokes. But use restraint. A few small leaves will be sufficient to excite your palate. Overdo it and you’ll suffer unpleasant consequences. Like nearly all wild herbs, nepitella in large doses can be toxic.
This page last updated: May 19, 2006.