epicurious.com: wwoofing in italy, herb lunch

Notes from Italy: Feasting on Locally Sourced Herbs

by Alison Baenen
on 05/15/09 at 12:38 PM

The offer seemed too good to be true: A botanist would lead a hike in the countryside to pick local herbs with maximum culinary possibilities. And there would be a lunch (score!) featuring the found delicacies. Despite our pitiful lack of Italian language skills and the fact that we had no idea where the destination (Radicondoli) was on the map, Jake and I agreed, on the spot, to go.

On the Sunday morning of the “herb lunch,” the hour and a half long drive we were expecting took closer to three. In our defense, Ristorante Boscaglia (a Slow Food-affiliated restaurant) is in the middle of nowhere. Dirt roads, loopy curves, wrong turns, and several windy miles stuck behind empty, slow-moving tour buses slowed us down considerably. That, and our disbelief that we could actually be going the right way: Where in all this rustic greenness could there be a restaurant?

When we did find the restaurant, it was packed. Despite our tardiness, the botanist, Alessandro, was just starting the walk, a pack of avid herbers in his wake. I could tell from a distance that I was woefully unprepared for class. Women were equipped with special notebooks, herb baskets, reference books, and umbrellas; they juggled all of these alongside handfuls of just-picked grasses, utterly transfixed by Alessandro’s teachings. He was like a life sciences rock star. The women called him “Maestro” and brought him offerings of plants, appearing crushed when he dismissed their gifts as inedible. “I chose the wrong major,” Jake mumbled as one eager female pupil elbowed him in the stomach for a closer look at the scientist.

After the walk in the woods (the restaurant is smack dab in the middle of a nature reserve), we dried off from the intermittent drizzle in front of a huge stone fireplace, and started in on the wine. While we’d been about 40 strong on the walk, by the time lunch was served the entire dining room was full, close to 100 people in all. I’m usually wary of food prepared for so many people at once, but from timing to taste there was nothing to find fault with. Did I mention that wine was flowing?

My favorite dish featuring the day’s herbs was the homemade tortelli filled with starflower, wild chard, and organic ricotta in a walnut sauce (I remembered to take a picture about 50 bites too late, so this shot of meat and potatoes will have to do). A full copy of the day’s menu is below (in Italian).

Do you have an herb garden? I’m afraid I’ll kill anything I plant when I get back to New York. Any urban herb garden tips?

Sformatino di erbe del giorno su insalatina di salvestrella, malva, melissa, finocchio selvatico e pratoline
Patè di daino con fico selvatico caramellato
Risotto agli asparagi selvatici e vitalba
Tortelli casalinghi (ripieni di borragine, bietola selvatica e ricotta biologica) in salsa di noci
Rollè ci chianina con farcitura alle erbe selvatiche e lardo di cinta senese con patate alle erbe aromatiche
Panna cotta al sambuco