Picking, cooking, and eating flowers and wild herbs was once a common practice across rural Italy. From Naplesâ€™ sciurilli (deep fried courgette flowers) to Venetoâ€™s frittelle di fiori de gazia (acacia flowers doughnuts), most regions have a dish whose key ingredient is flowers. But after World War II, industrialization and urbanization led to the abandonment of this ancient tradition. Now, one woman is trying to bring it back.
Elena Rosa, whose last name literally means â€œRose,â€ is growing flowers, wild herbs, and rare vegetables in a two-hectare farm nestled between the wheat fields of rural Piedmont, about 30 miles from the snowcapped peaks of the Cottian Alps. Rosa grew up in Turin, Piedmontâ€™s main city, but spent summers with her grandparents in Ceresole Reale, a mountain village inside Gran Paradiso National Park. Thatâ€™s where she first learned about foraging.
â€œAs a kid, I loved helping my grandma picking vegetables,â€ she says. â€œI used to go out into the woods to look for wild caraway to make grappa.â€ Now, some 30 years later, sheâ€™s delivering flowers to the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant. …
Common recipes included soups and frittatas made with luppolo (hop flower), jams and infusions made with rosa canina (dog rose), and dumplings filled with tarassaco (dandelion). Flowers were also a key ingredient in popular herb digestifs such as Serpui, a grappa seasoned with wild thyme, and Genepy, a spirit made with eponymous genepy herbs.
â€œWild flowers and herbs are rich in vitamins and minerals, and they were especially important during time of famine, disease, or war to provide sufficient nutrition to the population,â€ says Alessandro Di Tizio, a graduate of the University of Gastronomic Science in Pollenzo who works as a professional ethnobotanist. …
â€œAfter World War II, many young people left rural areas to look for work in cities, and were no longer interested in foraging,â€ De Tizio explains. â€œAnd those who stayed could often do without foraging thanks to newly available industrial products.â€ …
Two years ago, Rosa purchased abandoned farmland in Gemerello, a rural area at the foot of the Cottian Alps. After years of job-hopping, from sous-chef in a top restaurant to manager in a construction business, she was looking to start her own organic farm. The initial plan was to grow to grow regular crops, but her foraging sessions with â€œgrandma Irideâ€ inspired her to start what she calls an â€œancient seed farm.â€
She now grows roughly 200 different seeds, ranging from rare vegetables to wild plants and flowers including nasturtium, cornflower, and dahlias. â€œI have learned that flowers are very nutritious and can be used for a vast range of recipes,â€ Rosa says.
â€œTake bright-orange Nasturtium flowers. They are rich with Vitamin C and each of their components can be [used in different food preparations].â€ Nasturtium seeds, for example, can be ground to make pepper, blossoms marinated to make vinegar, and petals eaten raw or sautÃ©ed with butter. The velvety white leaves of begonia semperflorens are particularly interesting: They taste just like citrus fruit and can be used to season seafood dishes instead of lemon.
Flowers of Blitum virgatum, commonly known as leafy goosefoot (left), and a rare breed of calliope eggplant grown by Elena Rosa (right). Elena Rosa (left) and Vittoria Traverso (right)
But starting an ancient seed farm was not easy. Italyâ€™s byzantine bureaucracy was in the way. â€œLocal health authorities donâ€™t know how to rate flowers,â€ Rosa explains. â€œI got a mix of surprised and skeptical reactions when I explained you can actually eat them.â€
[D]espite bureaucratic obstacles, her products are slowly taking off. Last spring, Rosa brought a sample of her produce to Michelin star chef Christian Milone, who runs the family-owned restaurant Trattoria Zappatori in the nearby town of Pinerolo.
When Milone was a kid, wild flowers and herbs were a staple ingredient in his parentsâ€™ kitchen. â€œFrittatas with luppolo (hop flowers) were one of my favorite dishes,â€ he says. Tasting Rosaâ€™s sample was like re-discovering long-lost flavors.
A month later, Milone was serving dishes prepared with Rosaâ€™s herbs and flowers. One such floral creation is crostino con erba ostrica, a bread crouton topped with Mertensia maritima, a wild herb known as oyster leaf due to its oyster-like taste, and garnished with violets, daisies, and cornflower petals. â€œItâ€™s like an oyster for vegans,â€ Rosa says.
16 Nov 2018