I am passionate about ancestral foods and none are more ancient than the wild greens known today as weeds. So in honor of International Women’s Day, I’ve decided to share these spring recipes from Gather Victoria Patreon, Wild Green “Erbazzone” Pies, and Wild Green Pancotto Soup. What, you may ask, do wild weedy greens such as dandelion, ground elder, nettles, garlic mustard, curly dock, wall-rocket sorrel, plantain, pepper cress, sprigs of wild fennel and wild onion, have to do with women? Well, that dear reader is quite a story. After all, as Richard Mabey, writes in his book Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants, the weed is a plant in which “all of human history is entangled.”
For the purposes of this post, let’s say I’ve greatly narrowed the historical lens by focusing on my Italian ancestry, and two rustic recipes which feature a mixture of wild herbs inspired by a truly ancient culinary tradition still popular throughout Italy – foraging for wild spring greens, or “Erbe di campo” (field greens.) According to this amazing research paper, Edible and Tended Wild Plants, Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Agroecology, in Italy, as in many nearby countries, wild plants are still gathered, especially during the spring season, by the grandmothers and the oldest female members of the communities, as they have been for many thousands of years.
According to the paper, the gathering of weedy greens for Minestrella Soup is still a ritual for many women of the village of Gallicano in Northwest Tuscany, as is the making of Pancotto Soup in Orsara di Puglia, a recipe “born from the genius of housewives.” Women in the Southern Italian village, Castelmezzano, gather wild greens called Fogli¯along countryside pathways, in the vineyards, or near the wheatﬁelds.
Whether found in local woodlands, meadows, seashores and mountain slopes, these greens are blended into special mixtures and depending on regional cuisines, added to fresh cheese for pesto, baked into savory pies, used as a filling for flatbreads or ravioli (such as the famous Pansotti), added to soups or simply served as Erbe di campo al burro ( field greens in butter). The name Erbazzone comes from the word erbe, meaning green herbs or grasses, and is believed to be one the earliest Italian recipes, savory cheesy pies. Special blends of wild herbs are also used to prepare simple soups such as Pancotto – bread soup.
In the alps of Friuli, a special dish, consumed since very ancient times known as “pistic,” is prepared from a collection of 56 wild herbaceous meadows and wood plants. Similarly, Italian Riviera traditional cuisine provides many recipes for an ancient mixture of springtime wild herbs called “prebuggiun”. According to some recipes, prebuggiun is made up of 7 different herbs, according to others of 12, and usually includes nettles, dandelion, wild fennel, wall rocket, bitter lettuce, borage, and wild radicchio.
Today many herbalists believe many chronic modern illnesses are due to a lack of these foods in our diet. Filling our grandparent’s plates just a few generations ago, these superfoods brim with the vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, antioxidants, and phytonutrients we need to thrive. The wild herbs we know as weeds were not only part of an age-old medicinal and healing cuisine, gathered for their revitalizing effects, (especially after the lean days of winter) but had special religious significance as well. One of the earliest historical examples dates to ancient Rome when a special dish called Moretum made from wild herbs and fresh cheese was eaten in honor of the Goddess Cybele, The Magna Mater, (Great Mother).
According to Ovid, Moretum descends from a time when ancient people drank only pure milk and ate only “the herbs that the earth bore of its free will.” Moretum was eaten during the golden age, “before humankind had to cultivate the earth to produce food”. Ancestral foods indeed.
Today known as weeds, wild green dishes are consumed less and less, even in Italy. Today women are workforce and rely on older women in their families (mothers, aunts, grandmothers) to care for their children while they are at work. There is little time to carry on the traditional ways of gathering and preparing; they buy nearly all foodstuffs for the family in supermarkets and local open-air markets. Elders believe the younger generation has nearly lost the competence and traditional knowledge, necessary to identify, gather and process these plants in the kitchen.
The erosion of this body of food knowledge passed through countless generations brings to mind the grandmother hypothesis, a theory that suggests it was the grandmother’s expertise in foraging and food gathering that made menopause an evolutionary advantage.
The theory took root in the 1980s when ethnobotanists studying the behavior of African grandmothers with their grandchildren while searching for food observed how grandmothers taught food-gathering knowledge to future generations. Not only did grandmothers directly feed their offspring’s offspring, but their food-gathering contributions also helped feed the entire community.
So join me and revive ancestral green cuisine. Whether you live in the old country or the new, I think International Women’s Day is a wonderful time to celebrate the countless grandmas whose food wisdom nourished us through the centuries.
As far as I’m concerned wild foods and greens are seasonal, nutritionally balanced foods in their original form—as nature intended. And nothing reconnects us better to mother nature than foraging for the wild plants and herbs born of the earth’s free will.
Recipe One: Ancestral Wild Green Pies
When choosing your greens it’s important to remember that wild greens varied from region to region, and it seems all and any edible green plants that grew locally are used. Whether we’re talking dandelion, nettle, bishop’s weed, wild fennel, wood sorrel, garlic mustard, or bittercress, these plants vary in texture from tender, and lush to crisp with flavors ranging from mild and sweet, citrusy and tangy, pungent, bitter and mustardy, oniony & garlicky. Most were brought to the new world by immigrants as food and medicine, so today the same wild greens which filled these ancestral dishes can still be found growing in meadows, fields, along country lanes, neighborhood streets, clinging to hilly slopes, and at the edges of seashores.
These Wild Green Pies are inspired by Erbazonne and the distant Italian ancestry on my paternal side but I’ve used plenty of sour cream per my maternal Baltic heritage – and they have a great foraging tradition of their own. It’s made with sour cream dough, one of my favorite doughs as it’s easy to make, pliable to mold, and always moist. If you don’t overbake it!
¼ cup olive oil
2 small onions, thinly sliced
1 clove of garlic, chopped
½ cup sour cream
½ cup of goat’s cheese, crumbled
2 cups roughly chopped mixed wild greens (dandelion, nettle, bishop’s weed, garlic mustard, bittercress – whatever is growing near you!)
3 tablespoons minced wild onion greens (i.e. crow garlic, ramps or chives)
2 Tbsp cream
1 tsp salt – or to taste
2/3 cup sour cream
1 cup chilled butter, cut into cubes
2 cups plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 tsp sea salt
- Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Meanwhile, clean the greens, and eliminate tough stems. Add 4 tablespoons of salt to the boiling water, add greens, and cook for 5 minutes or until tender. Remove greens to a colander, and cool under running cold water, squeeze out excess water, and set aside.
- To make the pastry put the sour cream, butter, flour, and salt in a food processor and blitz for a few seconds until just combined. Turn the pastry out onto a work surface and gently bring it together into a disc. Wrap the pastry and pop it into the fridge for 30 minutes.
- Heat olive oil in a large skillet, add garlic and onion, and sauté until garlic just begins to brown. Add the sour cream, goat’s cheese, wild greens, wild onion, salt, and 1 egg to the onion and gently mix to combine. Warm until the mixture begins to firm. Set aside.
- Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface. When the pastry is about 1/4 inch thick use a biscuit cutter or a drinking glass, to cut out the pastry into approximately three-inch rounds. Place about a tablespoon of the herb mixture in the middle of a pastry round and bring the sides together, pressing to seal. Place the pie on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Repeat with the remaining pastry and filling.
- Preheat the oven to 400 F. Whisk the remaining egg with the cream, then brush it over the pies. Bake for 20 minutes or until the pies are golden and the pastry has puffed up. Serve the warm pies with a tangy relish or minced pickles.
Recipe Two: Wild Green Pancotto
The recipe variations for Pancotto are endless. Many say it’s a southern dish while others attribute its origins to Northern Italy, but according to Italian Chef Peppe Zullo “Pancotto is a dish originating from the mountains” and usually includes bitter lettuce, borage, wild fennel, wild celery, crespigno (wild chard). For my pancotto I used wild onions (allium vineale) and wild mustard, and homemade sourdough loaf flavored with little slivers of garlic mustard. I used the old garden herb lovage to deepen the flavor of the broth. If you don’t have any handy toss in a couple of vegetable bouillon cubes. If you’re not using stale bread, toast the bread in the oven then soften it in water or broth.
- 2 cups wild greens
- A handful of lovage leaves and stalks
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, and more to drizzle
- 4 tablespoons coarse sea salt
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 bouillon cubes, optional
- 4 cups cubed (1/2” cubes) stale bread
- 1 tsp of sea salt, to taste
- Bring a large pot with at least 4 quarts of water to a rolling boil. While waiting for the water to boil, clean the greens, eliminating tough stems. Add 4 tablespoons of salt to the boiling water, add greens, and cook for 5 minutes or until tender—a central leaf rib will be soft when pinched.
- Place greens in a colander, and save the cooking water. Cool greens under running cold water, squeeze out excess water, and coarsely chop.
- Heat 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet, add garlic and sauté until garlic just begins to brown. Remove garlic from the oil, add the bread cubes, and brown until golden and crisp.
- Bring the saved cooking water to a boil. Add the bouillon cubes. Add the chopped greens, mix well. Reduce heat to simmer. Add your bread cubes then let sit for at least 5 -10 minutes until the bread is softened. Add a generous drizzle of olive oil before serving.
If you want to discover more about wild green cuisine, you can find all kinds of plant/weed profiles along with plenty of recipes in the Gather Spring Edition of the ECookbook.