One of my favorite memories as a girl was foraging through the woods on Mt. Amiata with my dad’s family. Whether for mushrooms in fall, or herbs in spring, my nana and her sisters would later cook them as the filling for ravioli or a frittata.
Who knew foraging for something wild to eat could reap such fulfilling rewards? It’s the primal adventure of traipsing through the woods, a lush field, or the bases of olive trees and getting your hands and knees dirty in search of sustenance. It’s the pleasure of transforming those overlooked gems of nature into delectable omelettes, pasta sauces, salads, soups or desserts that’s so gratifying. Plus, the gathering of family and friends in celebration of the bounty under a canopy of trees on a hillside or in a park often yields lifelong memories. Generations of Italians uphold this tradition of foraging as an adventure, a hobby or just part of preparing any meal, in Italy and in America. Spring and fall are the perfect times of year to skip the supermarket and head outdoors for some fresh, wild ingredients.
Tuscan locals typically pride themselves on sneaking away in the early morning or late afternoon to scavenge alone for the perfect porcini, wild garlic, dandelion, wild radish, chickweed or stinging nettle. But my dad’s aunts, uncles and cousins often went together on a weekend, with children and dogs joining in on the hunt.
My dad would put on old shoes, strap on a canteen of water and a small satchel for our finds, pocket his Swiss Army knife for digging and cutting, and venture out, but only after he’d found the perfect sturdy, walking stick. The rest of us would join him, usually many paces behind his brisk pace, because he always wanted to be the first one to discover something. (Every year, he’d seek the largest porcini, carve his kids’ names on it, dry it, and later display it on a shelf, far more valuable to him as a memento than as a food source.) After a few hours, we’d all spill onto picnic blankets tables and feast on what we’d brought from home, too fearful to eat what we’d found until we checked with the experts back in town. The adults would drag out the homemade wine, and laugh and tell stories, making new memories without even knowing it.
In America, my mom and dad continued this tradition growing up with my brothers and me, exploring the woods in Allegany State Park, mostly for wild raspberries on an undiscovered path. Or even in my grandpa’s backyard, where he’d collect the dandelions from his yard and cook them down with oil and garlic, a delicious delicacy that we only appreciated later. The joy continues with our own children, born scavengers, whether in the fields and forests in the United States or back in Italy. Many Bostoniani can think of local chefs and restaurants in their ancestral hometowns, or else in the North End, where they serve up traditional, earthy just-found wild flavors in delicious dishes.
It’s springtime in Italy, which means that wild asparagus abounds, as common as blades of grass, and savory with butter and wild garlic. In the fall, keep an eye out for all those mushroom varieties. (In Tuscany, there are rules for hunting them, including size restrictions and obtaining a license. See www.regione.toscana.it for details.) For those who enjoy local foraging adventures, there are plenty throughout the Northeast. Check out www.wildfoodgirl.com and www.joshfecteau.com for monthly guides from March through November on foraging through the seasons. Take a look at www.emikodavies.com to learn more about the array of weeds, tips for foraging, and recipes for enjoying the bounty.
Grab your walking stick and enjoy the hunt!