Updated: Oct 5, 2020
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!
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!
Wild porcino mushroom
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.
Galletti mushrooms from the Casentino area of Tuscany (Galletti e tartufi del Casentino) Credit: Elisabetta Verdone, founder of Monnalisa Language School in Florence
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.