Guest blog by Penny Barry
I had an adventure last weekend. Heather returned to Cambridge leaving me with a sub-contracted quest deep in the Garfagnana to discover the hidden properties of weeds as food. So what happened? This is my tale.
The event centred around a dish called la minestrella di Gallicano, which is a soup native to the area made from weeds and beans served with a particular thin focaccia called mignecci, but more of this later.
It’s not easy going somewhere you don’t know, meeting people you’ve never met before, and all this, not in my native country, but plucking up courage, off I went. I was told to meet up in a certain piazza in Gallicano at 9.30 am but there was no one else around apart from a friendly looking bloke. After smiling at him a couple of times, I thought I’d better say something to him before he got the wrong idea about me! Luckily he was the organiser, Cesare, and he showed me where we were gathering. First, we were given a lecture on local weeds (edible and not edible) by the expert, Ivo Poli, and the local delicacies you can cook with them.
Hearing about edible wild plants
But the day was all about foraging, collecting weeds and eating them. The party of about 25 men, women and children left the safety of the lecture room to go to… the car park. Who would have thought that there were edible wonders lurking in the verges of an ordinary car park?
A meal at the edge of a car park
We were shown how to collect the weed and clean it with a knife straight away; you must leave it with the root (not split off the leaves) until you get home or the flavour and goodness are lost.
A tasty morsel
I am not a horticulturist, but even I recognised the weeds from my garden and orto (allotment) — nettles, dandelions, ranunculus (didn’t know its name before), primula, geraniums, violets — the list goes on and on and they can all be used in minestrella.
From the car park we moved on to Molazzano, a village a few kilometres from Gallicano. As I didn’t know where I was going, Cesare kindly arranged for a young man and his mother to give me a lift and from thereon in, they befriended me. When we arrived, we were again treated to the delights of the wayside weeds in the car park.
Following a short walk through the woods, we arrived at an agriturismo called La Scope for what turned out to be the highlight of the day — lunch!
Waiting for lunch
On arrival we were given an aperitivo, wine mixed with a licorice liqueur, I think, but boy did it pack a punch! Eating then started with antipasti including a wonderful locally smoked trout.
Extensively reared fish from farm near Gallicano produce excellent smoked trout
Then it was time for the minestrella di Gallicano. It is made from 15 to 30 types of local weeds, cooked in brodo (stock) with fagioli giallorini, beans which are special to the Garfagnana region of Tuscany.
La minestrella, queen of the day
The weeds have been cleaned, boiled, cooled, reboiled according to a recipe handed down from generation to generation so this authentic dish remains on the menu for years to come. I’m sure there must be a secret ingredient somewhere which would not be passed onto outsiders. It was served with mignecci — an unleavened focaccia made from maize flour, water and salt and cooked between the hot stones also used to make chestnut flour necci — not my favourite part of the meal.
Next came sausages and beans served with fogacce leve di Gallicano — much better focaccia in my humble opinion — along with a wonderful pecorino and more cold meats, all of which were delicious.
Fagioli all'uccelletto, a classic Tuscan peasant dish
Fogacce leve, focaccia cooked between hot stones instead of in the oven
Finally when we were close to bursting point, dessert was served, apple torta (pie) and torta di erbi — what else? This sweet vegetable tart made with Swiss chard and parsley is not usually my favourite torta, but this was delicious. A feast fit for kings, or at least humble weed gathers!
Apple pie and herb tart
The day was glorious with warm sunshine and it was a pleasure to be in the company of genuine, friendly people. I must admit that this morning I was looking at the grassy verge at the side of the road with new interest. Thanks Heather.
And thank you, Penny. In future my tours will definitely include foraging with Ivo and Cesare.