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Greens Crazy in Italy

It had been a few months since we heard from Jeffrey Greene, an American scholar living in France and author of the much-loved Golden-Bristled Boar. As he researches his next book, on wild edibles, Jeff has contributed several superb pieces to our blog (like this...or this), and now he is back with a story posted from Liguria and its surprisingly edible countryside.

My mother reports that as a toddler I ate fistfuls of grass, undoubtedly because in the spring sun or newly cut in the rain it smells heavenly. For poet William Wordsworth, this irresistible odor was imbued with the primal “glory and freshness of a dream,” wistful longings for intimations of youthful oneness with nature. What poet doesn’t write about grass? “All things that have been born were born to die,/And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass;/You've pass'd your youth not so unpleasantly”—Lord Byron. “Sound of vernal showers/ 
On the twinkling grass,/ 
Rain-awakened flowers”—Shelley. Even South African preacher Lesego Daniel commanded his congregation to eat grass to feel closer to God. He claimed, “...humans can eat anything to feed their bodies and survive on whatever they choose to eat.” In stark reality, the heavenly odor of grass is the result of trauma: injured grass emits its own version of an SOS distress call in the form of GVLs—green leaf volatiles. As most of us know, lawns are not particularly digestible for humans, but certain weeds that invade them are. These weeds have their own vernal perfumes and spring’s dizzy intimations of eternal youth.

On a whim in March, my wife Mary and I drove through the Swiss Alps and then the Ligurian Apennine to spend a week on the Riviera di Levante. Mary would say, “I’m so sick of gray and dark. I need some sun!” My friends said, “Oh, you are going for the legacy of poets.” Golfo dei Poeti—the Gulf of Poets—is where Shelley took up residence and Byron dazzled locals with his swimming prowess. Unfortunately, Shelley, a reckless skipper and poor swimmer, lost his life sailing into a squall near Viargeggio and was cremated on the beach. One comes to Liguria to worship the sea. “No,” I replied, “I’m going for the weeds. No one is more weed crazy than the Italians.”

I read ethno-botanical studies of Italian communities where gathering and cooking weeds remains in practice, despite the general erosion of “traditional knowledge” due to socio-economic shifts that have marooned old folks in decaying rural villages. Also, the “slow-foods” cult has resurrected cuisine using dandelions, daisies, chicory, onion grass, plantago, mustard, purslane, mint, plantain, fennel, and who knows what else. Studies cited Borago officinalis as the one weed most commonly collected in Italy, wild asparagus coming in second.  Borago officinalis is the gorgeous starflower, or borage, the common potherb seemingly known to everyone but me. It turned out that nearly every pasta fresca shop in Liguria features ravioli di borragine. Being a relative neophyte to gathering edible weeds, borage became my prime target if only for its sheer beauty.

In our capricious pursuit of sun and weeds, we managed to slip through the beginnings of a nasty late-season blizzard via the Grand Saint-Bernard tunnel and arrived in Sestri Levante in a full-blown tempest, the surf and gale conjuring poor Shelley’s fate. We chose this seaside town between Genoa and Cinque Terra admittedly for nostalgic reasons. In more youthful days, we swam the Bay of Silence in the morning and late in the evening we’d promenade the Bay of Fairy Tales packed with generations of Italian families, children manic on ice cream from the gelaterie. The name Bay of Fairy Tales comes from Hans Christian Andersen’s short sojourn writing in the area. We found a dog-friendly apartment rental in an elaborately terraced villa next to the Santo Stefano del Ponte church. The apartment came with a well-equipped kitchen, albeit a micro one, for our weed-based culinary experiments.

Liguria, even in its offseason, offers rugged beauty and an exceptional mixture of vegetation. This is where the Alps reach the Mediterranean coast with its palm trees and herbal macchia shrub lands mixed with olive, orange, lemon, avocado, and pine trees. Every town is situated in a cupped bay where small mountain rivers reach the sea and features stately buildings painted ochre, lime, and warm rust, trompe l’oeil providing a playful atmosphere.

Whether you are a novice survivalist or a vacationer in a rental, finding a market is the first order of business, and we soon found ourselves passing grim vendors with rain-soaked shirts and dresses flapping in wind and just two vegetable stands that seemed uniquely dedicated to greens, clumps and crates of chicory, broccoli rabe, turnip tops, kale, beet greens, chard, cress, and stalks with small artichokes. Even our highly touted Paris biomarché (where a Dixie cup full of grass juice costs seven dollars) doesn’t come close to the vast offering of greens. One section was devoted to prebuggiun, a term from local dialect meaning “a mess of stuff.” I pointed to the sign and lifted my eyebrows and shrugged my shoulders, universal sign language for “What in the world is it?” The vendor, in turn, with an obedient nod, summarily understood “Give me this” and started packing plastic bags with different greens, including Scorzonera (parsnip greens), ortica (nettles), tarassaco o dente di leone (dandelions), and, to my delight, borragine (borage). He demonstrated chopping the “mess” of greens with an imaginary knife and throwing them into an invisible pot while Mary picked out Italian words like bollire, which she interpreted as “boil until done.”

Before we could leave, the vendor pointed adamantly at a grass-like vegetable labeled with magic marker on cardboard—agretti. Both famed TV cooking guru Jamie Oliver and author Frances Mayes waxed poetic, describing agretti as the very essence of spring. Some Italians even think they grew up eating grass, when in reality it was Salsola soda, also known as roscano, friars beard, saltwort, barilla, or Russian thistlewort. Agretti, a true wild edible, grows in marshes around the Mediterranean and is a succulent closely related to samphire, which I have collected in Brittany and Arcachon. Its name Salsola comes from salt, and agretti, in fact, has been used to desalinate soil and is historically important in providing soda ash for illustrious Venetian glassmaking. I tasted a stem of this “marsh grass” and understood instantly its allure, the fresh spring crunch, hint of bitterness and salt. Mary held up two fingers asking quanto tempo for boiling friar’s beard, and the vendor held up five. We walked back the car, crunching on strands and leaves of Mediterranean weeds.

While the vendor advocated boiling as one does with spinach, the secret to greens-crazy Italy and perhaps to the Mediterranean diet as a whole could hardly be more simple: after boiling and squeezing the water out, sauté them in a frying pan with garlic and local olive oil, known in Sestri Levante as Ligurian gold. This minimalist formula applies to cooking edible weeds, just picked, sometimes almost black, fuzzy at times, and by turns bitter, sweet, and even slightly salty. According to natural food gurus, Italian weeds possess antioxidant powers, and a steady diet of wild greens helps to fight depression; who knows, they might have undermined the “romantic melancholy” of those tragic English poets who graced Italy. In any case, artisanal Ligurian gold and weeds form the quintessential slow-food marriage.

Due to Liguria’s orographic lift, strong winds and heavy rainfall are common, but storms come and go, and to Mary’s delight the clouds broke even when snows sprinkled higher elevations and the sea turned light jade in sun beams and passing skirts of rain. Parts of the region remain truly wild, protected by the difficulties of steep, often craggy slopes. On my rustic foraging walks with our dogs, Snowbell, a fluffy white Maltese, sported a black leash with gold lettering “Wild Forever.” I was struck by many busy locals growing and picking greens from their winter gardens and others gathering wild flowers and herbs. Wild edibles abound where the roads die out above the terraced olive groves. Locals would have rolled their eyes at my excitement while collecting various greens and what I thought was borage: “Foreigners, they’re so easily pleased!” I compared my young borage leaves to those I bought, and they were identical, though Mary kept eyeing them with deep suspicion. No disrespect intended toward Pastor Lesego Daniel, but the singular law in foraging is never eat what you are not absolutely sure of.

To our mutual surprise, however, was the discovery that we needed to take only two steps out our door to find hedges of wild asparagus with fresh sprouts. We began obsessively harvesting stringy asparagus stems from our landlord’s terrace, and soon after on my walks I collected more from the boar-ravaged terraces behind Santo Stefano del Ponte church. Despite her “Wild Forever” leash, Snowbell habitually became ensnared in blackberry brambles.

Finding Asparagus acutifolius alone officially marked our weed excursion a triumph against industrial food. Still, since wild asparagus verged on an ornamental plant in Liguria, even Euell Gibbons of Stalking the Wild Asparagus fame would hardly have been impressed. Adventure still remained in collecting borage and other weeds. For this, we drove into the mountains to Parco Naturale Regionale dell'Aveto, a spectacularly pure part of Italy. Mary, the dogs, and I walked the precipice of a ravine, and I saw for the first time the diaphanous blue of starflowers, their clusters known as scorpioid cyme inflorescence, each edible blossom with five pointy petals. Once you see that color under the demurred curve of the stems and the fine hairs, you never forget its soft blurry look. We began to see starflowers everywhere in impressionistic patches of blue and we collected plenty along with other weeds for our experiments, which would include our version of ravioli di borragine decorated with the starflowers.

All cooked greens invariably lead to comparisons with spinach, asparagus, cucumber, or even grass, but in fact they possess their own unique flavors and odors that become united with the place itself. This is the case with borage, but even more so with Salsola soda. Mary said, “Why don’t we make a dish substituting agretti for pasta, a sort of green capellini? It’d be great with those fiery looking shrimp.” We knew we could buy gambero rosso del Mediterraneo still alive at 4 p.m. when the boats returned to the fishing cooperative in Santa Margherita.

What started as a nothing-better-than-fresh-off-the-boat expedition left Mary and me slightly aghast. The coop resembled some level of vegan hell, a kind of death circus with octopuses making a slithering run for it, eels snaking the floor, and living rays crated with chopped-off tails. Formidable mantas shrimp that can smash even glass with their compact claws were reduced to a pile of flipping crustaceans. We found a vendor amid the chaos with a dolly loaded with crimson shrimp, and we managed to communicate a pound (“mezzo-kilo will do”) and left abruptly.

On the way back from the coop, we stopped at a garden store and I asked for seeds for growing Italian weeds—including agretti and borage—in our French potager. Of course, growing weeds is far from foraging wild edibles in Ligurian meadows with our dogs, but we do our best to live “wild forever” no matter what it takes: “The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,/ Each like a corpse within its grave, until/ Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow.” Mary’s idea of agretti capellini and gambero rosso with Ligurian gold may not have been original, but still we were struck not only by how fresh and delicate the dish is but also by the novelty of eating what looked like a plateful of grass.

Jeffery Greene's book on wild edibles is forthcoming. His book The Golden-Bristled Boar is available now in paperback.

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