Weeds for the Wise |
July 23, 1997
The news was weeds at a conference in Crete last spring devoted to learning why the food Cretans have eaten for centuries has kept them among the longest-lived of the world's peoples. The organizers, Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, had already helped people understand that olive oil, and plenty of it, mixed with vegetables, seems to be far better for the heart than butter. This we knew.
We spent the chilly, raw week examining dark green furry stalks that most of us had dismissed as useless, learning which ones were best in salads, which should be braised and dressed with lemon juice and of course olive oil, and which were good in soups or mixed with crumbly fresh sheep's-milk feta cheese and stuffed into dough for pies -- not just the showy multi-layered phyllo dough but simpler bread doughs, too.
During one memorable afternoon the cooking authority Paula Wolfert laid dozens of weeds along several long tables, with painstakingly researched explanations on sheets beneath each plant. It was like a high-school science fair that filled the assembled food writers with an almost mad curiosity to feel and nibble the stalks and leaves before us -- such a mini-stampede did we cause that Wolfert policed us, dividing the room into two groups and giving us each a strict fifteen minutes to examine the goods.
Even a week of having weeds at every meal, including breakfast ("mountain" tea, an infusion of bitter, bracing weeds), did not leave us weeded out. During the conference we heard health claims for the vitamins and various other properties of weeds, some of them perhaps overly optimistic. But we were converted.
And when we returned, we discovered that weeds are the thing among trendy chefs. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the chef of New York's sought-after restaurant of the moment, Jean Georges, spent several months last year learning to forage for weeds in New York State. He has burdock, hyssop, borage, and other wild greens on his menu, and plans to add more. Weeds are the new flavoring, and even, according to our Mediterranean lectures, the new panacea.
Greeks, of course, have known this for millennia. Patience Gray, a writer I venerate, discovered the Greek wisdom about weeds when she and her sculptor husband, Norman Mommens, lived on Naxos. She even called her masterpiece Honey from a Weed. Now she lives in my very favorite part of Italy, the southernmost section of Puglia, in the heel of the boot, and I have been lucky enough to have been granted audiences with her and Mommens, who still live utterly off the food they forage for and the beans and olives they cultivate. The very first time I drove four hours to see her, she set out several plates of unfamiliar looking foods that, of course, turned out to be weeds.
As part of a series of classic books on food, the publisher Lyons & Burford has just reissued Honey from a Weed in a paperback edition. It is cause to celebrate, for like all great books there is always much to discover and rediscover when reading it. Here, then, is Patience Gray on weeds.
From Honey from a Weed, by Patience Gray
Edwardian Englishmen laughed at French governesses for picking wild chervil, dandelions and sorrel in spring for salads, for cutting nettle-heads for soup. The governesses ridiculed the Englishmen for their addiction to stewed rhubarb. Each person, through instinct, habit or prejudice, likes to pursue his or her own way to health.
I became interested in weeds on Naxos: everyone in Apollona, but more especially women and children, wandered about in February and March, before the spring declared itself, in search of weeds, picked before their flower-heads appeared. They called them by the portmanteau name radíkia, meaning plants with beneficial roots and leaves, but also specifically dandelions.
Many of these weeds belonged to the daisy and dandelion family. The most beneficent in this group are dandelions, Taraxacum officinale, and wild chicory, Cichorium intybus, but it includes yellow and purple goat's beard, the latter being wild salsify; wild endive, Cichorium endivia; hawkweed, hawksbeard and hawkbit; a daisy, Bellis silvestris, larger than the common one; the ox-eyed daisy or marguerite; various kinds of sowthistle and a plant called Urospermum picroides resembling them (picroides meaning bitter, picrá in Greek). The more bitter the weeds, the better, as far as the Naxians were concerned. Milk thistles were also gathered as was the blessed thistle. The field marigold, Calendula arvensis, was gathered whole when it first appeared, as was the corn marigold, Chrysanthemum segetum, and little plants of chamomile.
Their baskets also contained four umbelliferous plants -- wild carrot, wild parsnip, wild fennel and wild chervil -- and several crucifers -- wild mustard, Sinapis alba, and allied white rocket, Diplotaxis erucoides, growing in cultivated fields, and also yellow rocket, Eruca sativa, growing in the wild. In the collection several mints appeared, particularly pennyroyal, Menta pulegium, as well as wild thymes and mountain savory, Satureja montana.
Most of these plants were gathered by cutting a section of the root, thus preserving the plant entire. Washed at the fountain, they were boiled and served with oil and lemon juice, the lemons picked from neighbouring groves. During the Lenten fast they were eaten in quantity like vegetable spaghettini, but without the olive oil.
Filling my water jar at the spring, I had a daily opportunity to examine these weeds and ask advice, and began to gather them myself, but first always offering them for inspection. At the time I was reading the landscape and its flora with as much attention as one gives to an absorbing book.
Mediterranean people value 'bitterness' in weeds, as once did all European peoples. On Naxos, on a restricted winter diet, everyone suffered from appalling pains in the liver region, deriving not only from monotonous diet but also from impure water and the terrible north wind. The Sculptor and I soon discovered the benefits conferred by weeds.
I had my first weed lesson in Castelpoggio with Dirce. She used to pounce on a great variety of mountain plants, pull them out with a penknife, and thus abstract the brown of leaves with a piece of root. She stuffed them in a cloth and thrust them into the foraging sack. She called them all radici or radicchi, meaning roots.
These plants were much the same as those gathered by the Apollonians from the carrot and daisy families. They also included several kinds of sorrel; lady's smock, Cardamine pratensis; primrose; Primula vulgaris; foxglove but (NB) only the yellow kind; mountain cowslip; mountain orache, Atriplex hortensis; plantain and dock. Dirce also snatched at new shoots of wild clematis, wild hop, wild vine and wild asparagus.
At home she washed them all under the tap which she kept permanently running in the kitchen, as if it were the village fountain -- piped water being a recent event. She boiled a cauldron of water on the fire, fuelled with Spanish chesnut faggots, boiled the weeds, drained them and ate them with olive oil and a few drops of wine vinegar, and hardboiled eggs. She often shouted up the stairs with an offering of a dish of weeds, gladly accepted, both bitter and delicious.
Dirce said that during the war people ate the tuberous roots of mountain asphodel and the bulbs of the sea squill, Urginea maritima, belonging to the lily family. Speaking of bulbs, I mention here a cousin of the grape hyacinth. This is the tassel hyacinth Muscari comosum, whose little bulbs are prised from the hard red earth in Apulia in March, called pampasciune in dialect and cipollotto col fiocco in Italian, a very welcome salad. The Naxians treat the corms of Crocus cancellatus, a pale lilac autumn-flowering crocus, in much the same way. (This should not be confused with the autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnalis, which is poisonous.)
At La Barozza I had a profitable weed lesson from a little girl of seven called Eugenia, who had an amazing weed vocabulary culled from the vineyard which her father worked. As she picked each plant, she said: 'This is for cooking' or 'This is for salad' (her plant categories).
The Tuscan vineyard weeds divide into two kinds, those that are boiled, radici, radicchi, which include most of the weeds already mentioned, plus wild leeks and wild garlic; corn poppy; wild clary, Salvia sclarea; comfrey, Symphytum officinale; young plants of borage; rampion, Campanula rapunculoides, which is a small campanula with fleshy white roots; sweet violet, Viola odorata; a white bulbous-flowered campion, Silene inflata; and alexanders, a celery-like plant, Smyrnium olusatrum.
Much of the medicinal value of these plants lies in the root, which is why they are picked with a stub of root; but only a stub, so that the plant is not destroyed but grows again.
The salad herbs, the other kind, include the flowers of borage, tasting of cucumber; rocket, Eruca sativa (which is also cultivated in gardens), and white wall rocket, Diplotaxis erucoides, and another little rocket, Bunias erucago, all three sharing the name rucola and all tasting of mustard. The leaves of the bladder campion when they first appear are also used as salad. So are the leaves and white roots of wild radish. Burnet is another salad plant, as are the small fresh leaves of centaury, hawkbits and hawkweeds, all with a bluish tinge. Fronds of wild fennel are picked for salad, and so is the buck's horn plantain, picked in its first youth; also wild lettuce, Lactuca viminea and L scariola, and corn salad, valerianella in Italian. All these vineyard plants are painstakingly washed and scrutinized for fading leaves, before being incorporated into delicious mixed salad, dressed with olive oil and wine vinegar.
The time to pick them is when they are crisp after a touch of frost. Once the flower-head appears the taste is lost, but in wet periods in May there is another crop. The leaves of this vineyard salad are small, various, perfumed and crisp. All these plants grow on the vertical slopes which separate the vine terraces, and in late May their flowers, scythed with the grass, become the fragrant hay fed to the cow whose main function is to manure the vines.
In Italy one is always coming across a portmanteau word which describes a wide variety of things. Radicchio and radice, like the Greek radíki, are portmanteau words for anything with a succulent root, edible leaves and bitter taste, and the plants they refer to provide a balm for the liver. Erbe and erbucce are all the delicate wild salad plants.
Knowledge of these and other plants was for centuries our common European heritage. The English, once familiar with these weeds and their specific virtues, as described in early herbals, are now showing a revived interest in this heritage.
The first treatise on medicinal plants was written by a Greek doctor, Cratevas, in the 1st century BC. This illuminated codex existed in Byzantium (Constantinople) until the 17th century and served as a model for subsequent treatises, but was then lost. Because of this, Dioscorides' De Materia Medica, written in the 1st century AD, has come to be regarded as the original study of plants. Christian monks, both Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic, pursued these studies, raised the wild plants in their walled gardens, dried their roots and leaves, pounded them to powder, and produced unguents and specifics for many ills.
The monks' gardens or herbularii contained in beds in which were separately grown rosemary, mint, sage, lilies, iris, rue, gladiolus, roses, fenugreek, fennel, cumin etc. For account of these gardens, see the work by Abatangelo (Chiese-Cripte e affreschi italo-bizantini di Massafra, Cressati, Taranto, 1966).
What is significant is the survival of this 'knowledge' in seasonal culinary practices, among Greeks, Italians, Catalans, in a tradition unsupported by literacy. The 'knowledge' is handed down, chiefly from mother to child, while stooping to gather the plants. (Fallow deer behave in the same way, the mother showing the fawn which plants to eat.)
The question now is -- without Greek village ladies, Etruscan Dirce, and little girls like Eugenia, how are people to begin to recognize and identify plants? The answer is, I suppose, to consult good books on the subject, although this will be a slower and more uncertain method than those described above. One book to consult is Roger Phillips' Wild Food. In it you will find a warning. The subject -- edible weeds -- has aroused an interest just when its pursuit is threatened by the use of pesticides and weed-killers. One has now to acquire an acute awareness in any locality of the use of chemicals. In the Salento the user of these commodities hangs up a bottle or tin from a tree at the entrance to his terrain as a warning sign.
But there is another problem; in Britain, for example, certain wild plants are 'protected,' and one must know which they are. Ignorance of the law can lead to heavy penalties.
So, quite apart from the ability to discern the edible plants, and awareness of their seasonal apparition, exact knowledge on two counts is required -- the Law and the application of pesticides.
It is unfortunate that many modern plant books, relying on colour photographs, ignore the nature of the roots of plants, often vital to the identification of edible weeds by amateurs. The entire plant is to be considered, not just its visible parts.
Nor are botanists particularly interested in edible properties of plants today, with a very lively exception in Geoffrey Grigson (The Englishman's Flora). His considered opinion of particular edible English weeds, even when prepared by a Queen of Cooks, is not always encouraging.
For a useful stimulus, read the pioneering pages on 'Wild Edible Plants' in John Claudius Loudon's great Encyclopaedia of Gardening. He did not illustrate the weeds, but there is a complementary resource, showing entire plants as they appeared in old herbals: Handbook of Plant and Floral Ornament from Early Herbals by the botanist Richard G. Hatton.
The essence of a 'dish of weeds,' whether cooked or served as a salad, lies in employing a variety of different plants. There are exceptions, of course. For instance, the poppy plants are sometimes cooked alone, as are wild asparagus, and the corms of the tassel hyacinth and Crocus cancellatus; and the Greeks cook the leaves and shoots of mallow, Malva rotundifolia, in spring to pacify the stomach and relieve it of winter ills. But the general approach, and the best one, is essentially that of Dirce at Castelpoggio. It is very similar to that of the goat in the hedge, who nibbles at a plant here and a plant there. The goat knows what will do it good. We can no longer say this about man and woman. So we have to fall back on botanical studies. Paul Schauenberg's Guide des Plantes Médicinales analyses the active principles of each plant and is well illustrated. A work of this kind is invaluable in indicating the method of drying plants and the preparation of infusions, and how the plants are used to mitigate common ills. But the real importance of weeds is that they help you to maintain good health.
xicoira (C) * radíkia (G) * cicora, cicuredda (Salentine)
The first name given is Catalan (C) or Greek (G) or Italian (I), according to where I came across the method of cooking them. Then comes the English name if there is one. Names in the other languages are given in the lower part of the heading, after the scientific names.
The ways of cooking weeds are simple; the trouble is in cleaning them.
the chicory with a stub of root in autumn or in spring, you scrape the root
with a knife, pick off old or yellowing leaves, and, plant by plant, throw them
into a crock of rainwater. Change the water at least twice. Leave them in water
till next day.
The Simple Way. Drain and rinse again the prepared chicory, and throw it into a cauldron of slightly salted boiling water. Cook for 20 minutes and strain. Serve hot with oil and lemon juice, the purest way. Or dress with olive oil and grated pecorino sardo.
Another Way. Clean and cook as above, strain and throw the chicory wet into a pan containing a little hot olive oil (or pure pork fat) with two cloves of peeled garlic and one hot chili pepper. Toss them in the oil or pork fat and serve, adding a few drops of wine vinegar.
For Feast Days. In the Salento in autumn, chicory is served with collar of pork. The pork, rather fat, is boiled with bayleaves, then cut into robust chunks and put into the pan to render some fat. When slightly browned, the pork is set on a heated dish and the cicuredda, already boiled, is tossed in the fat and served on a separate dish with slices of lemon.
Another Way. A more refined dish emerges if you cut a slice of pancetta (salt belly of pork, fat and lean) into neat small strips, brown them in a pan, then add the boiled chicory and toss it for a few minutes in the fat, then add a few drops of wine vinegar.
These simple preparations apply to many weeds, when not destined for salad.
queixals de vella, xicoies (C) * radíkia (G)
Dandelions, though never cultivated, were brought to market in England in the 19th century, just as weeds are brought to market round the Mediterranean today. 'When lettuce and endive are scare, the dandelion might be dug up from the roadside and pasture in winter and forced in pots like succory.' (Loudon, Encyclopaedia of Gardening) Succory is a portmanteau name which may apply to Cichorium intybus and to other plants (Picris spp) with a certain bitterness; these were formerly cultivated and 'forced' for salads ('forced' means blanched by earthing up). They are among the many plants with dandelion-like leaves, all sheltering under the radicchiella umbrella, all edible.
Gather young dandelions by cutting a stub of milky root together with its head of leaves, or take the plant whole when small. Wash under the tap, pare the root, leave in water for one hour, then drain, shake dry, and serve with a vinaigrette dressing, or add to a well dressed beetroot salad.
Visitors to Girona in Catalonia should enquire in autumn after a pheasant or duck prepared with dandelions (El faisà o l'ànec amb queixals de vella). In the Pyrenees at high altitudes the variety alpinum is equally edible.
dandelion and chicory cooked in Kyría Agápi's way
After thoroughly washing the gathered dandelions and chicory, changing the water several times, Kyría Agápi chops them finely on a board, pours olive oil into a pan, puts in the chopped plants, adds a little water, salt. When they have cooked for a few minutes, she throws in a handful of long-grained rice and some pine kernels, and continues to cook until the rice is tender and the liquid is completely absorbed.
If the pine kernels are lacking, this dish can be served with a grated piquant cheese. The Sculptor, in spring, often has this for lunch. Weeds promote energy.
Wood sorrel, a small trefoil: this 'of all Sorrel sauces is the best,' wrote John Gerard. These fragile leaves and stems were those originally used by the French in their Julienne soup, according to Auguste Kettner. Wood sorrel is less acid than field sorrel. It appears in the soup as little 'threads,' these being the stalks, the trefoil leaves having dissolved. They are the origin of the fact that a Julienne soup should contain little vegetable slithers finely cut and hence of the phrase en julienne. Gerard's sauce was sorrel 'stamped' (pounded) raw to which was added sugar and vinegar, a sauce for roast meat. In his day a polished brass cannon ball was sometimes used as pestle.
Field sorrel is well worth growing in the garden when woods and fields are far away. In the Salento three kinds of field sorrel, all forms of R scutatus, grow among the stones piled on the margins of the fields; one picks them in November at the same time as field agarics, in autumn and again in spring.
Uses of both include, besides sorrel soup:
fonoll (C) * finucchiara (Salentine) * márathon (G)
In March, or sooner in limestone districts, the succulent shoots of fennel are sought out at the base of the plant and cut off with their little plume of fronds emerging from a sheath.
Boiled till tender and eaten with olive oil and lemon juice. Or boiled for a few minutes, dried, tossed in fine flour and fried in hot oil. Much used in preparing fish soups.
kremmydoúla (G) * pampasciune, lampascione, vampagiolo (Salentine)
Cousin of the grape hyacinth, this delightful plant has a 'mad' flower with purple 'tassel' and a delicious edible bulb; it grows wild on limestone, but is so much appreciated in early spring that it is also cultivated. The wild bulbs are smaller and more excellent. They are dug out of the earth when three straggly leaves first appear.
Recipe. Wash the bulbs, then boil them. When tender, say after 20 minutes, drain and remove the rough outer skins while warm. The peeled object slightly resembles a very small peeled onion, only it is tinged with faintest green and purple. Cut them in half (or not), sprinkle with salt, pour over them a little olive oil and wine vinegar. Serve cold as an antipasto; they are delicious.
The corms of Crocus cancellatus on Naxos were prepared in the same way, dug up in autumn.
verdolaga (C) * mbrucacchia (Salentine) * andrákli, glistrítha (G)
This little succulent from Asia reached the Mediterranean in antiquity. It appears spontaneously in late summer in cultivated ground in Greece, southern Italy and Spain, often close to the Indian fig or prickly pear, which came from central America.
Fleshy-leaved, emerald green, purslane makes an excellent addition to a tomato salad, when picked before its small yellow flowers appear. It was grown as a pot-herb in England in Victorian times, a kitchen garden annual, but was already mentioned by Gerard in 1597, as was the then 'fabulous' Indian fig, which he showed, drawn from hearsay, as an arboreal cathedral!
Copyright © 1997 by Corby Kummer.
Exposition and recipes from Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray. Lyons & Burnford: New York, New York 1997. 374 pp. ISBN: 1558215433. $16.95. Copyright © 1986 by Patience Gray.