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The Porcini Time
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Tuscan Talent is introducing Heiko Vermeulen, Wild Food and Wine specialist, writing for the Tuscan Talent Food section:

A Forager's Paradise

Italy and even more so Tuscany conjure up many images in people's minds: high culture from Renaissance art to dramatic opera, historic sites dating back to the Romans and beyond,
la dolce vita in a country with a benevolent climate where the inhabitants enjoy some of the best cuisine and wines in the world. But those who have read the accounts of writers who have decided to make Italy their home, such as best-sellers Extra Virgin by Annie Hawes or Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, know about another aspect of Italian life: that of the thrifty contadino, the farmer, who not only grows most of his own food, but also incorporates many free foods from the wild into his diet, something that has always fascinated me.

My love affair with nature started early. As a child I had a whole collection of books on animals and plants. I grew up on the edge of a city in Northern Germany and me and a friend often hiked or cycled into the surrounding bog lands to watch birds. When I was about 10 we started collecting medicinal plants and dried them on the loft of my friend's house. I learned then that plants where much easier to observe then animals as they have much less of a tendency to run away. This was my first grounding in plant identification as we build up our stock of dandelion and daisies, colt's foot and chamomile, the leaves of birch trees and the nuts of beech trees. We also knew where to find crab apples and blackberries. When my parents took me on a holiday to the Black Forest we picked blueberries, raspberries, wild strawberries and redcurrants as well as bunches of wild garlic. Now I was hooked!

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Later as a student this early-acquired knowledge came in very handy as, like every student, my monetary priorities were focused on purchasing beer, leaving little or no money for other food items. So I went out into the countryside and supplemented the odd stolen corn cobs with stinging nettles, dandelion, some field or parasol mushrooms and fruit. I became a forager by necessity rather than as a hobby, but my knowledge was still limited.

Over the years I picked up more and more plants as I continued to be poor. Whilst living in Ireland I found you could eat the roots of angelica as a vegetable. Although I found it tasted of soap, I was hungry and got over it. Living in England we lived next to Epsom Common, which was full of berries and I picked sloes to make sloe gin, gorse flowers, dandelion flowers, oak leaves, rose hips and petals, elderberries and flowers to make country wines.

A young angelica stem. The stems can be crystallised and used as cake decoration.

When we moved to Italy in 2004 I finally felt I had arrived in heaven, forager's heaven! But I still had much to learn about the local flora. I couldn't recognise a wild asparagus if I had fallen into one face first, yet the asparagus season brings out the inhabitants of our village in droves resulting in frenetic activity in the surrounding woods and everyone vying for the most favourable spot. Often I would observe some old lady diving into a grass bank to pick up some morsels such as the young shoots of old man's beard, some sow thistle, sprigs of mint or oregano or wild beet. Autumn was another season that brought out hordes foraging for porcini mushrooms or sweet chestnuts.

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What is autumn without the smell of roasting chestnuts

Soon I started looking over my neighbour's shoulders asking what one plant or another was and what they did with it. I also started doing some experimentation by myself. Anything that looked or smelled interesting (many years working in the wine trade have sharpened my sense of smell!) I took a photo of and tried to identify it with the help of reference books or the internet. Sometimes I'd put a photo on my blog asking my knowledgeable readers if they knew what it was. I found that most country dwellers in Italy stick to certain plants only, ones they and their ancestors have always picked. So occasionally I'd come across non-native plants, which the Italians won't pick as they are not part of the collective folk wisdom, such as the autumn olive or the Jerusalem artichoke.

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The autumn olive tree is a native from East Asia which has been planted along river banks to reduce erosion. The berries ripen in November December and are not only delicious but also very rich in vitamins and anti-oxidants.

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The Jerusalem artichoke is neither from Jerusalem nor related to the artichoke. The plant originates from the Americas and was brought back to Europe to be cultivated for its tubers, which taste a little like artichokes. It later fell out of fashion with the arrival of the potato. It is a close relation of the sunflower, girasole in Italian, which was bastardised into Jerusalem.

Within a few years I found myself foraging for well over 100 species of wild plants, not counting mushrooms. The combination of the knowledge of all the locals, plus information gained from books and the world wide web all of a sudden made me an expert in this field. After attending a permaculture course recently I also came to realise that I lived in a particularly favourable location.

Without going into to great detail, permaculture is a design system, where we observe natural principles and aim to copy them. One of the ecological principles is that the greatest biodiversity is found on edges between different environments. Take a forest for example: in the middle of a mature forest, few plant species can compete with the trees, on the edge however the soil is rich in nutrients as debris and seeds carried by the wind get deposited and animal species from both environments meet on the edge to feed on the abundance.

When we moved to Italy we chose a spot right on the border between Liguria and Tuscany, where there are many such natural borders too. Our village lies on a hill overlooking the estuary of the river Magra which runs a southerly course from the Appenines into the Ligurian Sea. Just below our village the Magra is joined by another river the Vara, which runs behind the ridge that forms the famous Cinque Terre National Park. To the east of us are the Apuan Alps with up to 2,000m high peaks, where the famous Carrarra marble comes from. Above our village there is a dense cover of chestnuts woods. Within a few kilometres we have 2 high mountain ranges, 2 river valleys and the sea. In addition the agriculture around us is of polyculture smallholdings mostly cultivated with very little use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides.

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Surrounded by woods, close to the sea, the mountains and rivers: a forager's paradise!

The combination of those factors make this region one of the most biodiverse regions of Italy and hence a multitude of edible species can be found. There is not a day in the year that I don't find any edible wild plant. I'm still learning new things all the time. As I realised there is a wider interest in the subject I was commissioned to write a wild food guide book and have started conducting guided wild food walks. Earlier this year I was honoured to have famous TV botanist David Bellamy attend one of my wild food walks.

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The author in his element!

As a Tuscan Talent partner, my futures publications for the Tuscan Talent community will share some of my recipes with you, give you some tips on how to avoid poisoning yourself whilst foraging and also provide advice on
wine tasting and wine selection

In the meantime my book, 
Lightfoot Guide to Foraging – Wild Foods by the Wayside, is available through:  

Ii addition of Tuscan Talent, you can also check out my
personal blog. >>> 

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