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Digital Subscriptions > Italia! > Oct 2019 > A TASTE OF ITALY Food for free

A TASTE OF ITALY Food for free

Mario Matassa celebrates the start of the autumn foraging season with a set of Italian recipes that all contain ingredients that can be gathered for free

Italians are simply wild about wild food. Whether it’s chestnuts, borage leaves and mushrooms in the autumn, truffles in the winter, asparagus, wild hops, nettles and dandelions in the spring, or wild garlic, berries and fruits in the summer, there’s always something that has Italians taking to the forests, mountains, countryside and even their gardens with their baskets at their side.

Wild foods in Italy are not niche. Most Italians will regularly eat something they’ve collected themselves. To get a clear idea of what we are talking about, at one end of the spectrum is hunting. Italians are passionate hunters and game such as hare, wild rabbit, venison and wild boar is highly prized. However, not everyone in Italy hunts, and not everyone will go to the trouble of obtaining a licence to go hunting. Italians are also avid fishers. With 7,500km of coastline that probably won’t come as much of a surprise. But let’s not forget the streams and rivers that flow down both sides of the Apennines and through the Alps. Freshwater fish is very popular in Italy and the range will probably surprise you – Lake Garda alone has 30 types!

More popular, and more accessible, are the various foraged foods which are available to everyone, if you have a little knowledge and are prepared to put in a bit of effort. Foragers are not difficult to spot. They’re the ones invariably with a walking stick in one hand and a basket in the other. Sometimes they’re wearing a pair of Wellington boots, depending on the season.

The Italians’ passion for foraged foods stems in part, no doubt, from the fact that most Italians will have been introduced to the art of foraging at a very early age. Young children walking with their parents and grandparents along a country road covered in dark reddish-black stains have invariably been picking berries! In Italy, it is still considered something of a family day out to go berry picking – if you take into consideration the following day spent making jam, it’s a whole weekend’s entertainment.

Wild foods in Italy are not niche – most Italians will regularly eat something they’ve collected themselves

The repertoire of recipes for foraged foods is as long as that for conventional foods. Where foraged foods differ is that the window of opportunity is often short. Chestnuts start falling from the trees in late September/early October, depending on the conditions. By the end of October the season is effectively finished. Fresh green walnuts have to be collected at the end of June if you want to make a few bottles of liqueur, and elderflowers are in blossom for just a few weeks in late spring if you fancy making fritters. However, if you don’t, not all is lost. The same tree bears its fruit in late July if you want to make jam.

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About Italia!

We start our exploration of 'il bel paese' in the beautiful northern region of Piedmont. From elegant, cultured cities to the rural heartland of premium wine production, this is a wonderfully diverse place to visit. Our first stop is at the fragrant lavender fields of Sale San Giovanni near Barolo, known as ‘little Provence’.