Italian Table Talk: Braised artichokes with calamint
From Melbourne’s Indian summer, I’ve been propelled into Tuscany’s spring – and apparently I brought the warm weather with me. Though the trees are still bearing winter’s naked branches, the hills and fields are covered in a brilliant green cloak, often dotted with flowers. Even the cracks of the concrete and stone footpaths of Florence are filled with chickweed (a fresh tasting leaf with a slight pea-shoot similarity, lovely for garnishing salads, which just reminds me of something Nigel Slater said of the dandelions in the cracks between the flagstones of his kitchen doors, “I treat the gaps as a source of free salad.”). There’s no better time for a rummage amongst the overgrown foliage, lush from the months of rain, for wild weeds – the perfect zero kilometre, sustainable and free ingredient to put spring on your plate.
Foraging is this month’s Italian Table Talk theme. From Jasmine’s Sicilian recipe for pasta con le sarde al mare (pasta with wild fennel fronds) to Giulia’s acquacotta soup with foraged greens and Valeria’s nettle pesto, it’s a practice that holds a long tradition in the kitchens of countryside homes – just think about the availability and access to all those weeds, rambling blackberry bushes and hidden mushrooms. And being that thrifty and seasonal produce are the cornerstones of la cucina povera, there are plenty of traditional dishes featuring foraged foods. Stinging nettle, ortica, is a favourite and can be used in as many ways as you could use spinach and then some – in a tortellini filling in nettle broth or colouring fresh pasta, for example. On the Tuscan Island of Capraia, fragrant and pretty three cornered leek (or wild garlic), known as sammola in dialect, is made into fritters. Sorrel, or acetosella in Italian, covers the ground of the olive groves perched above the coastline of the Cinque Terre and gives a powerful lemony hit to anything it is added to. I’ve seen wild asparagus growing along the well-trodden paths of the National Park of Montececeri in the hills of Fiesole, not far from where Leonardo da Vinci tested his flying machine, they say.
But you don’t have to be in the countryside to forage (once someone shows you what to look for, you’ll find these popping up everywhere, even in the middle of Melbourne), which is just as well because right now I’m not exactly in the countryside and with a 16 week old baby in tow, getting my boots on for a good forage in the hills is well, frankly, not high on my list of things I’ll likely manage to get done today. I’m visiting family in the town where my husband grew up, Fucecchio, halfway between Florence and Pisa. It’s not a glamorous Tuscan town by any means, not like the overly picturesque scenes that postcards might have you imagining, and therefore it has practically no tourists (except for the odd “pellegrino”, doing the pilgrimage of the ancient via Francigena, which cuts through Fucecchio), but it has its moments. Like a walk up the old and crumbling stone steps to the Poggio (literally a ‘hill’, but more like a lookout) Salamartano, guarded over by the town’s main church, the Collegiata.
Marco had always told me about how, after it rains, the Poggio becomes drenched in the smell of nepitella – calamint (calamintha nepeta), a wild herb with soft, ever so fuzzy leaves that look like marjoram and taste like lemony mint. It grows through cracks in the stones of the panoramic piazza’s walls. It’s at its peak by the end of summer when it perfumes the autumnal air as a reminder that it’s also time for that other foraged favourite, and the herb’s preferred accompaniment, mushrooms. But its delicate mintiness also makes it a wonderful match with spring artichokes. Even Pellegrino Artusi thinks so. His 1891 recipe for carciofi in umido con la nepitella consists in quite simply braising the carefully cleaned and quartered artichokes with a bit of tomato, fresh garlic and a fistful of calamint, retrieved from the Poggio of Fucecchio or anywhere else where you know it grows.
Carciofi in umido con la nepitella
Braised artichokes with calamint
This is one of those dishes that tastes even better the next day, so plan ahead if you wish. I like to add the herbs just before serving so they remain fresh and bright green, but Artusi adds them to the cooking artichokes.
Remove the hard, inedible outer leaves from the artichokes and slice into quarters (or into six if we’re talking large artichokes). Dust them in flour and saute them in some olive oil in a pan (copper, instructs Artusi). Season with salt and pepper. Once they begin to get some colour, add some finely chopped garlic and a handful of fresh nepitella, calamint. Finish cooking in some tomato sugo or tomato paste dissolved in some water.