Thursday, March 17, 2011


Recently I commented on a New York Times food blog on an article on wild herbs. It reminded me of the many wild plants we still use (or I should say we should use?) in Italy. Herbs have always been an important factor in Italian cooking. Just think of the role that basil, sage, and rosemary  play in the Italian kitchen, just to mention a few, and you realize how important herbs are in enhancing the taste of dishes. 

These herbs are the domesticated plants that we find in the pots sold at the grocery stores. In reality there are hundreds of edible wild plants and flowers.  You think arugula has strong taste? Wait until you taste wild 'rugola'. Not the tame cultivated one you buy at the store, but the one growing wild like a dreadful  weed. Wow! It is like comparing a domestic dog to a wild coyote. How many people cook with wild fennel, an essential flavor in certain Sicilian dishes? And what about 'mentuccia' the tiny wild mint indispensible to cooking artichokes in the Roman style? I have a stomach ache every time I have to say 'substitute it with parsley'.

Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein (1751-1829) 
Goethe in the Roman Countryside

“Andare per cicoria", to go look for chicory has a bad connotation in Italian. It means to go an spend your time in some very low level doings. Wild herbs are not comparable to truffles or even to wild mushrooms. Chicory is for peasants not for the refined palate, right?  But who commands our taste buds? I love the taste of truffle as much as a dish of wild chicory 'ripassata' simply sautéed in olive oil and garlic: its bitter taste fills your mouth like an explosion.

I remember when I was a kid it was not unusual to see women in the fields on the countryside of Rome, slowly walking bent to the ground,  looking for something, scavenging with a small knife in their hands. In reality they were looking for edible plants. Still today some women do this as a business and they sell their precious cache at the farmers markets. But finding these treasures of the wild seems to be more and more difficult. Wild plants feel like species in extinction. In reality the ability to find wild herbs is becoming a lost talent. In the continuous push to make everything faster and cheaper, in surrendering to the tendencies of mass marketing, we restrict our choices and we flatten our taste. Maybe it is a sign of age but I think every time we lose a skill, every time we have less choices, we lose a small piece of our identity.  

Wild herbs have so many different tastes... they can be bitter or sweet , pungent or bland... they can be slick or sting you. Put them all together in a salad bowl, in the spring when they are fresh, savory, and tender and you have a “misticanza”. The word in the Roman dialect recalls a mixture... in our case a mix of wild edible herbs of every kind. It is like a symphony of tastes that will play in your mouth.

Buying wild asparagus in Campo de' Fiori farmers market

When I am in Rome there is nothing for me more fun than go to shopping in the 'Campo de Fiori' farmers market. It is the real hearth of the city; it is where you can discover the real soul of Roman people: witty and funny, wise and poetic, rude and gentle at same time.  

The "vignarola" cleans wild chicory

The market is divided in two long aisles. And here, in a corner an old lady, "la vignarola", sells ‘odori’ herbs for your cooking: parsley, carrot and celery for your “battuto” the Roman ‘mirepois’... rosemary, sage, and mentuccia, the wild mint for your artichokes. Here in a large basket is the wild chicory that she is cleaning. When it is tender it can be prepared as a salad, otherwise it can be dropped in a skillet with extra-virgin olive oil and garlic to accompany any meat dish.

 And side by side, here is a large basket of misticanza. Somebody asked for the recipe… What goes into a misticanza salad? oh well… here it is:

caccia-lepre (hare-hunter),
cresta di gallo (rooster crest),
dente di leone (lion tooth),
pimpinella (that's a sweet name,  must be related to Cinderella),
raponzoli (ugly turnips),
crespigno lattuca pungente (stinging lettuce),
erbanoce (nut herb),
cipiccia (other funny name I am not even trying to translate this),
papala, small poppy plants (way before they start blooming), and....
cordone del frate (fraiar's rope),
orecchio d’asino (donkey hears),
porcacchia (wow!), and finally …
indivia (endive),
rughetta (wild rucola)
young wild chicory,
dandelion, and a few more.

For the topping …. Make a pesto pounding in a mortar two anchovies, one clove of garlic and some salt; add fresh extra-virgin olive oil pressed last fall, white wine vinegar (possibly from a reliable source that makes it natural and not industrially). Toss it all together and enjoy!

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