Monday, December 04, 2006


Arugula. Borage. Chicory. Dandelion greens. Curly endive. Belgian endive. Mustard greens. Rapini. Radicchio. Salad frisée. Sorrel.

Said the L.A.Times recently: "at this time of year, bitter greens are calling from nearly every other stall or stand at the farmers market or the grocery store; they're a boon of winter. Until fairly recently, bitter greens have been popular in this country only in the South, but more of them have become more widely available, though their names still can be confusing." The article describes (with recipes) the delicate and interesting flavors that can be achieved through various uses of bitter greens, using techniques from the American South, Italy, and the Carribean. ("The sweet side of bitter greens" by Beth Fortune, November 29, 2006)

The heritage of wild greens traces to just about every rural culture. Like the poor farmers in the South and the Italian peasants, rural people all over used to make use of whatever grew to supplement the few foods of poverty. Say the words "green vegetable" and most people will guess that you're worrying about vitamins. Poor people who had only coarse bread or porridge knew they needed variety. They picked whatever they could eat -- from fiddle-head ferns in New England to sorrel for borscht in Russia, especially in spring when the few shoots were the only edible choice.

A variety of writers describe how the Italians, particularly poor rural people, gathered greens and herbs. Camporesi, a writer who has some interesting insights into both good times and bad says: "Greens were normally consumed in great quantity," in his book called The Magic Harvest, "especially field chicory dressed with vinegar and bacon, boiled or fried field poppies, sizercia in salad with bitter vetch . . ., omelets with onions, leeks, chicory, beetroot and field poppies." (p. 9) He goes on to explain that the eggs for the omelets were in short supply, and the impoverished families used them very sparingly. Waverley Root, a writer with more emphasis on fine cuisine, describes a Ligurian dish of deep-fried wild plants: "chopped sage, wisteria petals, the hairy leaves of borage, edible roots, salsify stalks, squash flowers and mushrooms. ... most such ingredients are intended to flavor the batter rather than to be eaten for their own sake." (The Food of Italy, p. 375)

Leaves of wild plants such as nasturtium, mint, borage, arugula, and sorrel, and flowers of new fennel, rosemary, and violet, could all be turned into attractive salad material, according to Anna Del Conte's Gastronomy of Italy: “In the past such plants were among the principal foods of the poor who, out of sheer need, had learned how to recognize and cook them. . . . Nowadays, good cooks have again come to recognize the culinary value of these simple unpretentious plants.” ( p. 104) Another food writer, Montanari, explores the distinctions between peasant and noble foods as well, saying that "bulbs and roots (leeks, onions, turnips) were left to the peasants, as were the 'lower' and more common greens. Fruit from trees instead was suited to the aristocrat." (The Culture of Food, p. 90)

In the south of France, people gather "herbs de provence" — rosemary, thyme, oregano, mint, savory, parsley, lavender, laurel leaves, and other native species; fresh or dried they flavor salads, stews, and soups. If you ever accompany a French person who knows how to gather these herbs, you'll remember the bright sun, vivid blue sky, and marvelous perfume of the scrubby, rather plain-colored thyme and rosemary. Perhaps your host will throw a handful into the fire over which meat is roasting, or use them in a fish that's been brought from the Mediterranean that morning. Quickly, you'll learn why modern chefs expound the virtues of this type of cooking. But centuries ago, these native herbs were valued far less than prized exotic spices such as ginger and pepper, which were imported by tortuous routes from the East Indies.

In the book Honey from a Weed, Patricia Gray includes an entire section called "Edible Weeds," which begins "Edwardian Englishmen laughed at French governesses for picking wild chervil, dandelions, and sorrel in spring for salads, for cutting nettle-heads for soup." She describes the necessary economies of the families in Italian villages and countryside where she lived, and how they value the plants that can be gathered freely. Her experience includes similar foods during long stays in Greek islands. She mentions having found that similar edible plants were used in the Middle Ages in Germany and Poland. Her general view is that the greater and greater cost of organic and wild foods is making what used to be the food of the poor into "outrageous luxuries." (pp. 188, 325)

In ancient China, too, peasants were aware of all the edible plants in their environment; like the European and American rural people, they kept a living tradition of which normally spurned plants, particularly wild ones, could be used when crops failed. In the Han period, thousands of years ago, poor people normally ate garlic, scallions, beans and water, taro, or dried grain, but turned to soy to relieve the effects of famine, according to various articles in the anthology Food in Chinese Culture.

I find it fascinating that the foods of poverty, once little valued because they lacked the substance to satisfy real hunger, are now valued precisely because of their low calorie count. Again, I contemplate our wealth and our lack of consciousness of this wealth.

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