Incredible Edible…Weeds

March 24, 2009 / Food & Wine
Sant'Agata de' Goti
verdurecampo1Caterina was carrying two big plastic bags. I asked her what they were and discovered that she was taking some greens to an elderly lady living down the road. In one bag were the ubiquitous broccoletti (broccoli raab). In the other was… a heap of weeds.

In the first warm days of early spring Caterina’s mother – from the generation that lived through the wars – still roams the fields in search of that wonder of wonders… le verdure di campo (wild “vegetables”).

verdurecampo2We oohed and aahed a little and then went our separate ways. But sure enough, the next day my doorbell rang and Caterina appeared with two even bigger, bulging bags, both filled with the same delightful assortment I had admired the day before.

I happen to have a weak spot when it comes to wild weeds because no other vegetable compares to the green, bittersweet, ancient taste of this mixture. Furthermore wild edible plants define the term ‘fresh’: they must be cooked as soon as they are picked because they begin to wither immediately.

As Caterina explained how to clean them, I put a big pot of water on the stove. When it came to a boil I threw a handful of sale grosso together with the greens, cooked them for five minutes, and strained them immediately. They can be eaten all’agro (blanched) with a little olive oil and lemon, ripassate in padella (pan-fried) with garlic, oil and peperoncino, or as pancotto (literally, cookedbread) by adding cubed pieces of dried bread. Added to beaten eggs they make a mean frittata.

verdurecampo3One day I hope to meet Caterina’s mother so that she can teach me how to identify the various edible herbs: ortica, cicoria, piscialetto (literally bed-wetter or dandelion), asparagi, radichiello, borragine and cardillo; I promise to organize a field day, literally, so that the next time you’re walking through a grassy field you’ll be able to pluck more than wild flowers, and instead be able to pick and lunch on these incredible edible weeds.

Barbara Goldfield

by Barbara Goldfield

Owner of “Savour The Sannio”, www.savourthesannio.com, a travel consultancy for central and southern Italy.

19 Responses to “Incredible Edible…Weeds”

  1. This note transported me back to Sicily and the day our friend Elio took us on what we called “the hunt for the wild asparagus” – the skinny kind that grew in the fields near Ragusa. His friend Pippo was an expert “cacciatore” (hunter) and with his trained eye he filled a big bag, and at the end of the day, presented us with it! I made a risotto that was amazing and a painting of the bouquet of those slender strands.

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  2. This is what I recently posted a recipe for on my site. In Umbria they called them “campagnolo”, or “verde di campagnolo”. My recipe is here at http://tinyurl.com/d3vsbw

    We bought our bag of “weeds” at the market and then kept seeing them growing wild up and down our street. I am afraid to pick them myself in case I pick something that really isn’t edible!

    Deborah

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  3. Wonderful, Barbara. Will you really organize a “field trip?” Can we come too? It’s a dying tradition. I remember the same gift from my mother-in-law, but I was too young to appreciate what a real gift it was. Many thanks.

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  4. When I was growing up in Brooklyn, we had several ‘older’ Italian ladies who would wander around, looking through front gardens and at every green that sprang up from cracks in the concrete sidewalks. My cousin’s remember being sent out by Nonna, to scour the neighborhood for new dandelions and chicory. They would be given a nickel if they returned with an armful of the fragrant greens.

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  5. Barbara, Thanks for bringing back wonderful memories. Growing up in Queens, NY, my dad would often go out on a Saturday morning and scour the local grassy parks for wild vegetables and also wild mushrooms. When he got home, my mom would cook them immediately and the whole house would take on this yummy aroma. Mmmm…I can still smell it now!

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  6. Oh, my gosh, this takes me back to being a young girl in Chicago and my grandmother who came to America as adult, would scour the yards and gardens for dandelions and other ‘weeds’. She would make soups, salads and frittatas and they were so delicious and there for the taking. An experience that has just about dissappeared now….how you could make a meal out of weeds!

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  7. Annette

    Oh what wonderful memories this story brings! When I’m vising my cousins in Collelongo, Abruzzo, I’ve picked greens with my elderly cousins, as well as medicinal herbs.

    There’s nothing like dandelion greens sauted with a little olive oil and garlic, with a few eggs beaten in.

    Mille grazii!

    Annette

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  8. Ken Borelli

    there is nothing more delicious than wild mustard greens, called rape…..the cultivate ones, such as brocoli rape are fine, but definetly not the same….today with so many fields built over it becomes harder and harder to find them…..another one is malvia, and that needs to be eaten very young…of course water crest and miners lettuce….these were spring treats after the winter rains….in Calif. of course…..

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  9. Patricia

    Whenever weeds would sprout up after a rain I remember my Mom telling me that some of them were edible and that people would eat them during the war when food was so scarce. Thank you for the memories.

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  10. Sally Haskell

    Barbara, I have been fascinated by this practice since I first observed it. This activity resumed in my neck of Umbria a couple of weeks ago. It fills me with consternation, wonder, envy, and a giggle. Thanks for the interesting article. Sally

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  11. Susan Zappia

    We live in upstate NY and my beloved Italian dad would go picking greens in the fields on the way to his favorite fishing spots. He knew exactly what to look for. I looked forward every spring to a big bowl of dandelion greens fixed like a salad with olive oil and vinegar, garlic, oregano, onion powder, salt and pepper. WE would then take fresh Italian bread and make a sandwich out of them! Out of this world..and so good for you! My dad is gone now and the tradition is also gone…I miss him (and the greens) so much!

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  12. Here is the abstract from a scientific paper published in Economic Botany, 49:26-30 (1995). Anyone tried it?

    Western Friuli, Italy, there is a small area near the town of Pordenone where an ancient rite of spring is still carried out. This is the preparation of a special dish, known as “pistic,” a collection of 56wild herbaceous meadow and wood plants which are boiled and then sautéed together. This practice is still alive in a few areas of Friuli today and possibly goes back to pre-Roman Celtic cultures in this part of Friuli. The number of herbaceous plants used in this dish is extraordinarily high (56), especially when compared to the low number normally used in other conventional dishes. “Pistic” is therefore important, not only because it represents a quantitatively high use of wild herbs in the diet of the rural population, but also because it reflects environmental awareness, in that the archaic method of naming, identifying and using these plants still exists today. Similar rural practices include the use of “pot herbs” in Great Britain and in France the cooking of “mesclun.”

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  13. Laura Ellen Antinucci

    Please let me know if you organize a field day! I would love to join you!

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  14. This is my first time viewing replies. I didn’t realize people were so busy commenting all this time!

    There is a scene in _La Ciociara_ (_Two Women_). The war refugees living in the mountains are starving by the time spring arrives. Their winter stores are completely empty and their tummies are rumbling as they take to the hillsides combing for new spring greens. The precious greens can’t possibly quell their hunger yet hunger compels them to search and pluck and search and pluck. Moravia evokes the boredom and desperateness of their plight.

    In less desperate times, it is neat to note that dandelion and chicory are considered by many to be powerful detoxifiers good for the body in springtime. You can concoct a beautiful green-colored tea from them. It tastes like you’re drinking springtime. But it must be drunk immediately. It doesn’t keep and will turn a sour brown, even in the refridgerator. I have no idea if Italians know about this.

    So glad to see all these ways of preparing the bitter greens. mmm.

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  15. Michel Chauvet

    Mesclun is a name from Nice, and is used for a mix of salads, usually cultivated, and eaten raw, with oil and vinegar.
    In the Mediterranean area of France, gathering and eating of wild salads have remained a popular practice. Of course, old rural people do it. But it has also become a fashion and a kind of cultural marker for the many people coming to Montpellier. Many trips are organized in spring in order to train people in identification of wild salads.I had the opportunity to participate in the third edition of a book (in French) which has become a standard for our region :
    Marco Claude, Chauvet Michel, Molina James et Ubaud Josiane, 2003. Les salades sauvages. L’ensalada champanela. 3e éd. revue et corr. Prades-le-Lez, Les Ecologistes de l’Euzière. 176 p.

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  16. Barbara Modica

    In the spring, there is a weed which resembles a rhubarb plant, except it is smaller, has a green stalk and green leaf shaped and about the same size as rhubarb. My husband’s family (from Sicily)boiled the stems, discard the leaves, then breaded them and fried them in olive oil. They called them gardoni (or something similar to that). Are you familiar with them? They are only edible in the spring, later on turn into a tall plant.
    We carry on the tradition and our grandchildren love them also.

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  17. Michel Chauvet

    I answer Barbara. Are you living in Italy, or at least in the Mediterraena area? If so, your “gardoni” could be cardoni (cardoons), which are the petiols of Cynara cardunculus. They are very bitter, which is why they first need blanching. To identify them, look at the limb of leaves. It is dissected, not entire like rhubarb. When the plant flowers, it gives heads which look like artichoke (which belongs to the same species anyway). The internal part of the heads can be trimmed and eaten.

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  18. Have you ever heard of a wild, green leafed plant that grows in the yards in the Chicago area called ”GARDINO”?

    My boyfriend says his mom used to pick it out of their yard, bread it (flour it?) and fry it. He said it is really good.

    The closest thing I can think of (around here in Arkansas) is Burdock but I never heard of frying it.

    If there is any other kind of ‘yard vegetable’ that I am missing I would love to find it! Thanks for your help.

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  19. Nancy, it is carduna or cardoons. We have them here is NY and do the same thing, bread and fry…they are delicious, a taste like nothing else!

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