by Lucie Rezackova, Edited by Sierra Busch
Traditional Italian cooking can’t be done without foraging for wild edible plants. It’s one of the most unique Italian cultural traditions still in practice today. Every region of Italy has its own traditional recipes handed down from generation to generation. These authentic dishes utilize the wild edible foods that are indigenous to that specific area. Mushrooms, greens, and herbs are hand-picked from local forests, meadows and pastures. Searching for wild foods and cooking them according to traditional recipes is a part of Italian everyday life, and is certainly one of the immersive cultural activities you can’t miss in Italy. Let’s find out which wild plants to forage and how to use them in traditional Italian cooking!
Disclaimer: It’s important that you correctly identify plants when foraging for food. Mushrooms are notoriously easy to mistake as there are poisonous versions that often look similar to the safe versions. Arm yourself with a quality guidebook made for the exact area you live in or find a local person who specializes in native plants of your area to come to your property and show you what’s already growing and edible on your land! Never eat anything you aren’t 110% sure you’ve correctly identified and always get a second, professional opinion. This is an informational article only and should not be used to identify wild plants. Creative Edge Travel is not responsible for your resulting health after consuming wild plants and food.
1. Foraging Wild Mushrooms
Nature in Italy is known mostly for its sunny beaches and endless vineyards. But there are forests too (especially in the northern part) offering a variety of mushroom species all year round! Fall is definitely the best season for foraging wild mushrooms. While mushroom picking is allowed freely in some countries, you have to have a license (“tesserino”) for it in Italy, which helps to maintain sustainable harvesting. This restriction clearly demonstrates the Italian culture of respect for nature and food. The conditions for obtaining the license differ from region to region; in some, you have to pass a test, and in others you can obtain it without any conditions. In any case, please inform yourself about the local laws, restrictions, and regulations and educate yourself about edible, non-edible and poisonous types of mushrooms before you start foraging this delicious ingredient in Italian forests (or at home, too!). Better yet, join experienced locals in mushroom or truffle foraging and book a foraging experience such as the one on our Living Slow in Tuscany small group tour!
Mushrooms are an important part of traditional Italian cooking; champignons and oyster mushrooms are widely used in pasta, pizza and various sauces. Marinated mushrooms are a popular antipasti (the first course of an Italian meal) and very easy to make. Locals put their freshly picked wild mushrooms into a jar, add some spices and herbs and preserve them with olive oil. While these mushroom products are accessible in stores all year round, the taste of a fresh, wild mushroom is totally another level!
Porcino (pl. porcini)
Porcino is probably the most commonly used wild mushroom in traditional Italian cooking. Roast some Porcini mushrooms with a drop of olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and add it to your pasta sauce. Or cut them into thin slices to top your homemade pizza. When you happen to be lucky enough to find a larger amount, sun-dry your sliced porcini and use them as extra flavor in risotto or soups. This king of mushrooms usually grows under pine trees but can be found anywhere in the forest. Secret tip: the tastiest porcini are found near chestnut trees! It’s highly likely that your foraging for wild porcini will be successful as chestnut trees make up about one quarter of all forests in Italy.
Chanterelle (galleto, pl. galletti)
At the turn of summer and fall, it’s hard to overlook this easily recognizable wild mushroom in Italy. This golden forest gem is full of flavor, besides being high in vitamin D. Italians use galletti as a distinctive ingredient – it has the ability to turn bland meals into a gourmet experience! You can’t go wrong by trying out risotto or fresh tagliatelle with galetti. It’s not recommended to dry them though; they tend to get bitter and flavorless after that.
Oyster mushroom (fungo ostrica)
Oyster mushrooms are an absolute gem among wild mushrooms. They’re loaded with nutrients such as calcium and iron, and Italians eat them not only as a dainty side dish to meat and fish but wild oyster mushrooms taste “meaty” enough to make a perfect meat replacement for vegetarians and vegans! Traditional Italian recipes include preserving them in oil, frying them in a pan or adding them to pasta dishes or roasted vegetables. In addition to their intense flavor and amazing nutritional properties, they have many medical benefits as well. Oyster mushrooms are anti-inflammatory, lower cholesterol, balance high blood pressure, and serve as an antioxidant and immunity booster. Some even say they have anti-cancer properties. While this mushroom is being sold in a capsule form in pharmacies due to its healing powers, nothing beats the distinctive flavor and nutrient content found in the freshly-foraged wild oyster mushrooms found in Italian forests!
King Trumpet/Oyster Mushroom (cardoncelli)
This mushroom is popular in the southern regions of Italy, such as Puglia, Calabria or Sardinia. It’s like a sister to the oyster mushroom in that it has great nutritious value and health benefits. The taste is more subtle, which makes it a great and balanced companion to meat, fish, vegetables, pasta, legumes, rice and many other meals. It’s valued for its texture and umami flavor. They are often ignored by porcino mushroom hunters so don’t forget to watch your steps, you might get lucky! In traditional Italian cooking, King Trumpets are grilled then preserved in olive oil.
Of course, we’ve left the best one until last! Whether you love them or hate them, they have a distinct and unique flavor. Italians use truffles in simple, few-ingredient meals – thinly sliced over fresh pasta with parmigiano cheese. In any case, truffles go really well with fat which highlights their flavor, such as butter, cream or oils. Unfortunately, they’re very very difficult to find in the wild. But you can try your luck and get rich by finding the most expensive food in the world! (Fun fact: European white truffles can sell for as much as $3,600 a pound!) If you’re a foodie, don’t miss the annual Truffle Festival held every November in San Miniato, an authentic hidden gem in Tuscany.
2. Wild Greens
Wild greens grow all over Italy and are a vital part of most Italians’ diet. It’s no wonder; they are widely available, foraging for them doesn’t cost anything and they’re also multipurpose; used in both sweet and savory dishes in traditional Italian cooking. Some are also used as herbal teas and even as a natural remedy for treating different kinds of health issues. Let’s dive into understanding these healthy and delicious wild plants!
Rampion bellflower (raponzoli)
Did you know that Rapunzel got her name after this plant? Its inconspicuous light blue or violet flowers growing in meadows and pine forests seem more like a nice decoration for a vase than a delicious and edible ingredient, but its leaves full of vitamin C have been used widely throughout Italy (especially Sicily) as a substitute for spinach. They are usually lightly steamed and accompanied with olive oil as a traditional Italian side dish. Its root is also edible – usually processed the same way as radish or parsnip. Its young roots and leaves taste the best, so it’s recommended to pick bellflowers in spring.
Wild borage (borragine)
If you find yourself in Liguria, a northern region of Italy, don’t forget to taste local ravioli or pansoti. There’s a high chance that they are filled with delicious wild borage! This hairy plant can be utilized in many ways in traditional Italian cooking; raw leaves eaten as a salad, steamed as a substitute for spinach, sweet honey-flavored flowers used as a dessert decoration, seeds pressed to extract oil, and more! This nutritious and multipurpose plant can be found in sunny areas of forests and pastures all year round.
Wild cardoon (cardoni or cardi)
This wild vegetable is popular mostly in Sicily. While it resembles an artichoke and is closely related, the indigenous Sicilian cardoon plant is called cynara cardunculus. Unlike most greens, wild cardoon is a winter vegetable, usually picked in early December. Only the stalks are used in dishes and its hard fibers on the surface must be removed before cooking. After you boil the cardoon in salted water for about 10 minutes or until softened, you can eat it just as it is. Another method popular in Tuscany, is to preserve it in olive oil with garlic and anchovies for a tasty appetizer. In the Abruzzo region, cardoon soup is even a traditional Christmas lunch meal. And when the fried food cravings hit, make “carduna”, a traditional Sicilian dish!
Wild dandelion and wild chicory (cicoria and cicoriella)
These rather bitter leaves are widely popular in the southern Italian regions Apulia and Liguria and grow on unkempt lawns and meadows. Wild dandelion was once one of the most important greens picked by women in the fields, then used in their kitchens and sold on markets. It is also a very versatile and nutritious kind of vegetable, used in main courses, as a side dish, in pasta sauces, or even in desserts!
Early spring is the perfect time to forage for dandelion leaves in Italy! For salads, pick only young leaves without the flower. However, if you want to make a side dish or add them to pasta, you can pick dandelion leaves until May as the older leaves tend to get bitter.
Wild dandelion is very similar to wild chicory, both visually and in flavor, and their leaves are interchangeable in recipe. While both of them are tasty and healthy wild greens, some prefer chicory over dandelion due to a less noticeable bitterness. Roasted chicory roots are used as a tasty and caffeine-free alternative to coffee. Not to mention its healing properties- wild chicory is a great natural remedy for liver and gallbladder problems. As you can see, traditional Italian cooking is delicious AND healthy!
Wild fennel (finocchietto)
The nature along the coast of Southern Italy doesn’t only offer dramatic views and azure sea. In the meadows of these coastal areas, you can actually pick wild fennel to use in some refreshing and traditional Italian recipes! How about mixing a hike with foraging for this tasty wild green? But don’t be confused: wild fennel doesn’t really resemble the store-bought kind we eat in salads. It doesn’t grow a bulb; it produces pretty aromatic fronds (ready to pick in spring) and seeds in the summer instead. Try out this 3-ingredient pasta recipe below!
Pasta con Finocchietto Selvatico (Penne Pasta with Wild Fennel and Sausage)
Cook wild fennel fronds in water for about 10 min, then finely mince. Brown the inside of any Italian sausage (chopped to small pieces) in olive oil, then add the cooked wild fennel and let it fry for a while. Add cooked and drained penne pasta to the sauce and let the mixture cook for another few minutes. Serve hot!
Wild capers (cappero, pl. capperi)
Capers are known as “the caviar of Italy”. These little savory balls are so popular that a caper festival is held on the island of Salina every June where you can enjoy traditional Italian recipes featuring local capers! Did you know capers are actually unblossomed flowers? The immature flower buds are picked from May to August and usually preserved in salt and water or vinegar and then used to add a burst of salty, olivey flavor to pasta dishes, pizzas, sauces, seafood, all kinds of meat and especially fish. The best thing about wild capers is that they grow almost everywhere in southern Italy so you can hardly find them in shops. The caper bushes love to climb old walls; so look around when you visit a medieval castle or an archeological site, you may find this traditional Italian delicacy at every turn. One of our favorite experiences to share with our guests in Italy is a deep dive into the sleepy island of Salina, including a boat ride to a nearby active volcano and a visit to a caper farm!
Wild asparagus (asparago, pl. asparagi)
Forget cultivated asparagus – wild asparagus has so much more flavor! Its season starts even before spring arrives: early February. The locals know where to forage for this gem of traditional Italian cooking; wild asparagus hides in the shade of rocks and other bushes and trees such as olives throughout all of Italy. If you’re lucky to find a place where it grows, keep it hidden; it will grow at the same place next year and you’ll rejoice in another batch of fresh wild asparagus! After your foraging session, try out the most traditional Italian recipe that celebrates wild asparagus: frittata di asparagi (Asparagus Frittata).
3. Foraging for Wild Herbs
Wild herbs and spices are essential to traditional Italian cooking. They can turn a simple and rather bland meal into a delight! Not to mention their healing properties. Wild herbs are rooted in Italian culture the same way other wild plants and mushrooms are. Foraging for wild herbs brings you way more nutrients and flavor than what you would find at a store, so let’s find out where to find them and how to use them!
Wild oregano (Origano comune, Origano meridionale)
Is there a Mediterranean spice more famous than oregano? This strongly aromatic herb is a tomato’s partner in crime! Whether a Caprese salad, Neapolitan pizza, or pizzaiola sauce, oregano’s trademark taste and smell can’t be replaced in traditional Italian cuisine. When foraging for wild oregano, you’ll notice a much stronger aroma than the cultivated plant you find in your store-bought spice cabinet. Two main types are prevalent in Italy: common oregano (Northern and Central Italy) and southern oregano (Southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia). Wild oregano can be picked throughout the year but for the best quality, summer foraging before the flowers start to blossom is recommended.
Oregano has also multipurpose healing powers; ranging from antiseptic properties to curing cough, stomach and muscle pain, toothache, and many more. The leaves can be used fresh or dried and prepared as an herbal infusion or pressed to make essential oil.
Try out the traditional vegetarian Italian meal from the Abruzzo region: toast a slice of bread, drizzle with olive oil, top with tomatoes and finish with your freshly picked wild oregano! Beauty is in simplicity indeed!
Wild saffron (zafferano)
As a staple of traditional Italian cooking, saffron was once more highly valued than gold. You can find this precious purple flower growing in the Tuscan meadows and forests, but beware: this pretty and rare herb has a deadly twin called “Naked Lady” which you can easily mistake for the saffron plant. Wild saffron always has only three red stamens!
When you’re in the Abruzzo region, don’t forget to try out cannarozzetti pasta with creamy bacon & ricotta sauce seasoned with wild saffron. This traditional authentic meal can make your mouth water just reading about it! Don’t miss surprising desserts such as saffron panna cotta – this spice is used in many unexpected ways in Italian kitchens!
Wild anise (anice)
Have you ever wondered what is that interesting and curious flavor found in certain types of Italian cookies? There is a great chance that you’re tasting anise seeds. When cooking with anise, one can very easily go overboard so keep the amount at a minimum. In Southern Italy, such as Calabria, Italians usually forage for the wild anise seeds. The green seeds are harvested in the summertime and later used as a spice (fresh or dried) not only to season sweet cookies but also to add flavor to the well-known Calabrian sausage or to vegetables, olives, and wild mushrooms preserved in oil or vinegar. Traditional Italian cooking never tasted so good!
Who would have ever thought that Italian cuisine could be so colorful and flavorful just by using wild ingredients?! Did you know that Italians regularly forage for wild foods and then cook with fresh or preserved wild mushrooms, greens and herbs? Do you practice foraging for foods and then preserving them yourself? Let us know in the comments!
This is article #2 in a 3-part series. Don’t forget to check out these 7 amazing benefits of foraging for wild foods! Coming next: 7 Authentic Italian Dishes Using Foraged Wild Food.
If you’re heading to Italy soon and want to experience foraging for wild food and learning how to cook with it, get in touch now!