In ancient Friuli, wild herbs were part of daily nutrition for those who lived in the mountains or the countryside. Sometimes, in fact, they were only form of medicine available. Today, of course, many medical labs still take advantage of the medicinal powers of these herbs in modern medicine.
In Friuli, the tradition of integrating wild herbs and plants into daily nutrition is still alive and it's quite easy to see many people in the spring and summer months carefully stepping through the fields, along river banks, and the edge of forests with a basket in hand, carefully looking for their prize.
Also in the restaurant and hospitality industry these herbs are proposed as a delicacy, something that not only clears the palate but is also used for purifying. Sauris - located in the Dolomite mountains of Friuli - rests at 1200 meters (3937 feet) above sea level and every June hosts an exciting wild herb festival. Here you can find appetizers, first courses, side dishes and even desserts that are made from the local wild herbs collected in the nearby forest and fields.
Some of the most famous include:
Spinacio Selvatico (Wild Spinach) - This is also known as "Buon Enrico" in honor of Henry the IV, a former king of France. In order to feed the hungry population, he opened the palace park to the public so they could gather the wild plants for food. This plant was among them, and one that was favored by the public. See it here.
This plant is found along mountain trails and paths. The leaves are used for risotto dishes, omelets and as a filling for ravioli.
Cicerbita / Radicchio di Montagna - This is such a popular plant that the Region had to put in place a law to protect the species. There is a limit of one kilogram per person, per day.
It is quite flavorful and can be pickled and pairs well with an appetizer of mixed salami and cured meats (especially ham). See it here.
Silene Vulgaris - This is also known to locals as "schioppettino" or "sciopet" In the summer months it produces little bell-like flowers that children liked to pop in order to hear the small "puff" - or schioppettino - of air that was released by squeezing it.
It is found on hills or on flat land, but due to the pesticides used by many flat areas (such as farmland or home gardens), it is not so easy to find in the flat areas.
Use it to make a delicious risotto, a filling for salty crepes, and in lasagna. It has a very light, delicious flavor.
Left: The leaves of the Silene Vulgaris can be used to make a delicious risotto. Right: The bell-like flower of the plant.
Il Papavero Campestre (Wild Poppy) - This is a plant that can easily be located and is actually considered a weed, as it seems to thrive in the farmers' precious wheat fields.
They must be picked just after sprouting in the spring, and although they don't have a particularly strong flavor, they are still edible and are great to mix in with any of the other plants mentioned here. See them here.
Ortiche (Nettles) - Common throughout the Friuli region, they can only be used at the beginning of spring when they send out their first shoots.
They can also be used in risotto, purifying soups, and accompanied by onions, potatoes or Cjarsons (a type of ravioli originating from the mountains of Friuli).
Some early spring nettles push their way up through the dead leaves.
Tarassacco (Dandelion) - This is the most commonly eaten wild plant in Friuli. In late spring, it produces its large, yellow flowers. In the summer, as most of us have probably noticed, their seeds are seen attached to little white "parachutes" gently flying through the air.
This plant is used to detoxify and as a diuretic. The small green foliage that shoots up at the end of February / beginning of March (*in Friuli) can be used in salads (with hard boiled egg and anchovies), or in small quantities they add flavor to vegetable or potato dishes. The buds can be boiled and conserved in honey, which makes a great sauce to accompany a variety of delicious cheeses.
If you are ever in Friuli in the springtime, I highly recommend looking into some of these wild plants. Grab a basket and see what you can find while enjoying the beautiful Friuli scenery.