A thing of thirty years ago still vivid in my memory is a salad served towards the end of winter at a dinner in a farmhouse in the Pistoia region (between Florence and Lucca). The landlord, a passionate cook, had been preparing several traditional dishes. Among them there was cotenne di maiale in umido con fagioli or “stewed pigskin with beans”, with some pig hairs still stuck on the skin. At that time, thank God, I was vegetarian so I could avoid tasting the mouth-watering specialty without offending anyone. On the table, next to an inviting cheese plate, ready to be brought into the dining room, towered a huge bowl
full of green leaves; the brilliant, vital green rich in energy only spring can donate. By taking a closer look I recognized tiny heads resembling valeriana salad, small, whole herbs with long, thin roots and every possible shape of leaves: oval, peltate, lanceolate, palmate, trifoliate, heartshape… An appetizing whole dressed with home made wine vinegar , extra virgin olive oil from their own olive grove, salt from Volterra coming from the same salt mines which had furnished the ancient Romans with first class salt (in this case supposedly not personally extracted by the landlord but bought at the supermarket…). As final
touch and to confer a pleasant contrast, a generous handful of pomegranate grains; all accompanied by excellent wine - from the local vineyard. I haven’t eaten such a delicious salad in my whole life and asked where one could buy it. “You can’t, you must gather it by yourself”, replied the cook and we arranged an appointment to gather the yearned herbs. I found out that it is like with mushrooms: only skilled experts are able to distinguish the edible varieties and, in fact, it’s an art handed down through the ages, usually from mothers to daughters. Since then, many years have passed and each end of winter I
promise myself to collect al least once the fresh greens and enjoy a nice fresh salad or a dish of pasta or rice with a wild herb sauce. Unfortunately , from one spring to the other twelve months are passing, sufficient to forget the characteristics of the “edibles” and the collectors are not always willing to share the best spots either. This is why I chose to go for four types only, which are really easy to recognize: the dandelion (taraxacum officinale) for its beautiful yellow flower and the deeply toothed leaves; the bladder Campion (silene vulgaris) for the rustle of the leaves when rubbing them; the borage (borago officinalis) for the bristly leaves and blue star-shaped flowers; the nettle (urtica dioica), finally, for the burning on the skin when touched carelessly. What can one cook with them? The tender dandelion leaves, raw and not too thinly cut, go well with a lukewarm potato salad, because the nice bitter taste of the leaves enhance the sweetness of the potatoes. The bladder Campion, boiled, minced and served as side dish with meat and fish, is appreciated for the pleasant, delicate flavor. Borage and nettle, cooked with a tin of tomatoes transform into an inviting sauce, perfect to dress noodles or rice.
My unrealized dream is still there: one or the other spring I shall be dedicating my whole time to this art and shall hopefully be learning to collect at least fifteen different species! For now I am enjoying the great fortune of having a generous and very skilled neighbor who generously shares plenty of mixed wild herbs for raw salads, exactly like the one I fell in love with thirty years ago.
I nearly forgot…with dandelion flowers you can prepare a lovely jelly nice spread on buttered toast but very useful against cough and colds. Interested? Please leave a comment…
Anneliese Rabl …. finding a life in Tuscany