I became acquainted with foraging at a young age, still unaware of its real meaning. It simply appeared in the list of open-air games alongside Hide&Seek and the like.
My uncle, my mum’s youngest brother, was the one who first showed me how to forage. He was nine years younger than mum, and eighteen years younger than their older brother. Age-wise, he was closer to my brother than his own siblings, and you could tell he belonged to a different generation from theirs, the one which came after the economic boom and the cultural revolution of the Sixties. Grandma thought he was never going to marry, as he was too handsome and only liked to flirt around without commitment. Plus, his friends were his only other family. He dedicated his whole young life to sports and leisure, running marathons and playing soccer, and being the fittest, funniest and the most adventurous. His has been a model, a myth and a mentor for both my brother and me. The only one in the family who took the time to educate us on music, sport and life like an older brother would, and in a way parents can’t do.
He had a vinyl record player and would play Beatles and David Bowie and the best of the Italian music scene whenever we were around. He would take some time on the weekend to teach us how to play tennis, to swim in the sea, to prepare for the school athletic competition by jumping longer and running faster. He would take me on tours along the canals with his old-school motorbike, and on car rides in his amazing blue Renault 4 with the manual shift up higher and the music tape stereo inside, singing along his favorite songs. He took pictures of us with his awesome analog Canon E1 and printed them big to hang in his room just over that charming bongo he would play once in a while for our amusement. I still have copies of those photos: they are the best I have from childhood.
At one point in his life, something happened that had a huge impact on him. He had a really bad accident in the sea and nearly broke his neck. Luckily he didn’t, but something else broke inside him instead. After the accident, he could no longer accept some things of his own life he wasn’t completely happy with. He stopped trying to fit in. He quit his office job and decided to become a lifeguard. He moved to that village near the sea that was almost deserted during winter time. He became somehow more introspective and needed to stay in touch with nature at all times. We would visit him a lot during summer, when we would get some vacation weeks at the seaside, and would spend many evenings playing cards (he also taught me that) and eating ice-cream. Growing older, I became more and more aware of the meaning of his choices and admired him for his freedom and courage and happiness. I was grateful for all that he had done for us.
Somewhere between these memories lies the one of riding his cool blue car toward the pine forest just before the shore to go and pick pine cones for pine nuts in the fall, and wild asparagus in springtime. Also, the memory of walking along a canal in search of wild hop shoots, bruscandoli, to take home to grandma so that she would make a risotto for lunch. I never foraged with anyone else before or after: no one taught me how to, no one ever took me on a hunt for wild food except for him. And although the value of wild food was still fairly obscure to the child I was back then, the concept remained somehow ingrained in my brain, and came back spontaneously many years later, as a graduate student in food culture. Foraging has remained something I do for fun, something which evokes sweet and fun memories and that gives me that feeling of childish joy. There is something deeply satisfying in eating something free and acquired with time and skill and purpose. The same type of satisfaction we would feel in winning a game or bringing an important project to an end and seeing it in its complete form.
Springtime being the best time to forage wild plants, Emiko, Giulia, Jas and I thought to make it this month’s theme for Italian Table Talk. In this episode, Jas talks about wild fennel and its use in a tasty Sicilian pasta dish; Giulia tells us about wild herbs in a soup called acquacotta; and Emiko makes braised artichokes with nepitella. As for me, what I know and love about foraging is strongly connected to the story, the person and the memories above. I hoped to find wild asparagus and hop shoots to somehow connect that story to the present but didn’t have much luck. One of the few edible plants I can put my hands on –rather, my gloves on– here is nettle. Whose sting I could only think of running away from, being the worst enemy of my childhood summer excursions in the fields, but which I learnt to appreciate for its many uses in the kitchen later on.
I think of nettle as some sort of wild spinach, and I cook with it accordingly, with the only preventing measure of always blanching it for a few seconds before use (forget raw nettle smoothie!). Blanched, I used it successfully in soups, frittata, stir-fries, risotto or savory tarts, or turned into tasty dips or sauces for pasta. What I felt most excited about and wanted to share here was indeed the latter use: nettle pesto.
The procedure is the same as any other pesto: take a green of choice and puree it together with some garlic, nuts, cheese and lots of olive oil. Here, the green is nettle (blanched), the rest follows the rules: pine nuts, garlic, Parmigiano and good olive oil. The doses are fairly flexible, too. Anyway, here’s how I did it: I placed one garlic clove, about 200 gr of blanched nettles, 40 gr of parmesan cheese and roughly 2 tablespoons of pine nuts in a food processor. I added some olive oil and pulsed everything for a few seconds. Then, I kept adding olive oil while the blender was working until I got a smooth and creamy sauce. I stored this pesto in a jar in the fridge and froze the rest for future use.
You can use nettle pesto in many ways, but I would mention it as a perfect seasoning for pasta, plain or with some add-ins such as feta (or mussels!); as spread on toast, topped with some stir fried veggies like mushrooms or asparagus and some shaved pecorino, or underneath some avocado slices, or topped with creamy scrambled eggs (2 eggs+1 dollop of labneh/cream cheese/ricotta per person); and finally, as a condiment in legume or grain salads.