Wild Things

November 30, 2012 / Food & Wine
nel Ragusano, Sicily

A few weeks after the first autumn rains have fallen on Sicily’s sun-parched fields, the season of wild things begins.

Ragusa’s countryside has gone from arid to gloriously green with splashes of bright wildflowers, and is dotted with sharp-eyed Sicilians armed with plastic bags and knives, bent over and rummaging, intent on picking wild things.  If you ask someone what they are picking, you might get an incomprehensible answer like “agghiti.”  When you ask to kindly repeat that, you’ll be met with a shrug and a simpler answer. “Verdura” – greens.

Foraging greens in Sicily
Man tasting wild greens

The season of foraging for wild greens in Sicily is roughly from November to April, and begins with wild chard (“agghiti” in Ragusa’s dialect), then continues with borage, crunchy cardoons, jagged-leafed “matalufo,” sweet asphodel, bitter chicory, mustard tops, feathery fennel, wild asparagus, and prickly nettles.  Most of these greens are eaten simply steamed and dressed with olive oil.  For a heartier dish, chard is mixed with other ingredients, then stuffed into a plump envelope of dough and baked, becoming Ragusa’s version of focaccia.

Focaccia stuffed with wild chard

Each cook will have a slightly different version of these stuffed “scacce.”   Some add raisins to the chard, others insist on olives, potatoes or bits of sausage. All agree that the filling should be heavily doused in olive oil.

The rest of the year the Sicilian foragers focus on picking wild herbs to be dried, like thyme, mint and oregano, they stock up on fennel seeds and tiny wild onions, and finally, capers that will be preserved in salt.  By then the fields have been parched by the fierce August sun, and foragers are kept busy with the grape harvest, while waiting for the season of wild things to begin once again.

Ragusa countryside walker

 

Anita Iaconangelo

by Anita Iaconangelo

An expert on walking and culinary tours in many areas of Italy, with a special focus on Sicily, Anita Iaconangelo is the founder of Italian Connection Tours and author of the blog Anita’s Italy. She is currently at work on a book entitled Savoring Sicily: A Culinary Quest. 

22 Responses to “Wild Things”

  1. Mary Jane Cryan

    Anita, thanks for this note…you must have a trained eye to spot the edibles that abound in the fields and roadsides. Around here we have wild hops or luppoli and thin, wild asparagus which are delicious in a frittata.

    Reply
    • Hello Mary Jane. I just got back from foraging for what our neighbour calls wild hops here but people around here call them Vitappia (sp?). To me they look like clematis tips (which are of course poison). How do you cook your wild hops?

      Reply
  2. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    …WHAT a coincidence , just yesterday I made some pizze piene
    some with salsiccia, some with cicoria tangy peppers and raisins
    My nonna from Puglia always leaned toward agro dolce,In my classes I too lean that way

    Reply
  3. Angela Finch

    Yes, I too enjoyed your note. I found it informative and interesting. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Anita Iaconangelo
    Anita Iaconangelo

    Thanks for the comments – though I can recognize the many edible plants, it took a while to find out their names in Italian (never mind English!) I admit that I still eat a few things that I only know by their local Sicilian names.

    Reply
  5. I wonder if the aghitti are like the agretti that I saw in all the markets in Rome last spring. Agretti are long green kind of grassy strands that look very much like what the smiling man with the mustache is holding. They were delicious lightly steamed and served with a little lemon and olive oil.

    Reply
  6. I love the idea of “wild things.”

    There’s something about simple cooking that appeals to me so much that I’d like to buy a cookbook of only an array of vegetables and the recipe always the same: “Heat the pan with a little olive oil and fry the wild things for 3 minutes. Next, eat.”

    Thanks for this! Mmmmmm!

    Reply
  7. Wonderful story of enjoying the gifts from the fields. What flavor they must have! I remember my Italian mother-in-law who was delighted to find to the chagrin of my husband, 9 varieties of edible “weeds” in our less than perfect lawn.

    Reply
  8. Giuseppe Spano
    Giuseppe Spano

    Dandelion may be a weed to many yet it is of a general list of wild plants unofficially called cicoria. Good food! Your husband can take pride in his lawn once more.

    Reply
  9. jean mancini

    I just can’t believe you mentioned Cardoons, My mother in law who came from there used to make them all the time, this was in the sixtys. I sure do miss her cooking, I still make danelions. I love reading this site!

    Reply
  10. Pat Carney-Ceccarelli

    Anita, this was wonderful!! I just came back from friends who shared with me a pot of a soup sent by a friend in Sorrento, called a Marriage Soup (rough translation!) apparently it took this wonderful woman three days to prepare and was full of many wild greens and then “married” with the broth and boiled meats. I felt inspired to begin to try to learn what might be out there (I am in Tuscany!) growing literally under my feet and start using those fine gifts of nature. thanks for the extra inspiration to get out there!

    Reply
  11. Connie Compiano (USA)-Campopiano (Lucito,MoleseReg.Italy)

    Love reading about wild things. My mother’s mother came from Motta Santa Lucia, Prv.Contanzaro Calabria and she taught me about the wild greens, especially the dandalion as a child she would take us out into the lawns and show us how to capture them then bring them in clean and soak them, saute them in olive oil with new red potatoes basil and garlic perfecto….

    Reply
  12. Grace Rohland

    Have a friend whose realtives are from Ragusa.

    In my family dandelion salad was a springtime treat.

    Reply
  13. Fantastic article and photos! When you grow up around Sicilian grandparents you never look at any patch of Earth like your average American teenaager. My grandmother Carmela not only harvested wild greens; she and my grandfather Michaele carried a sheet in the trunk of the car to spread out under isolated olive, fruit and nut trees for impromptu shakedowns. California, their adopted land of opportunity, provided many foraging opportunities.

    Reply
  14. Gian Banchero

    Ahh, California’s first spring arrives in January where the rains turn the hills as green as those of Ireland (couldn’t think of another reference…) and two types of mustard greens become present, one we sicilians call cavoloscieddi and the other coluzzi, it is then you see our tribu’ (tribe) of a certain age out on the hills collected large sacks of the greens. The greens are either steamed then cooked in olive oil with tons of garlic and some red pepper and salt, sometimes with currents and anchovies… Sometimes in stuffed foccacie or calzone. Then when true spring arrives there are more gifts from Mother Nature, I can hardly wait for the different types of dandelion which are steamed and cooked as above or added to pasta… Qui in California come in italia la vita e’ bella!

    Reply
    • YES!!!! I have been looking all over the web for the correct spelling of (THANK YOU!!!) “Cavoloscieddi.” We called them “Cavalies” (with an “a” sound like, “cah-vah-lee.” I just picked about 4 lbs here in Toledo, Oregon and am posting to Facebook. But I needed to know how to spell “cavoloscieddi.” :-)

      Reply
  15. Mary Ann Jordan

    I think that the Sicilians used dandelion here in American for cicoria as it is probably not available here. What plant is cicoria? Anyone know?

    Reply

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