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.
Oyster mushroom (fungo ostrica)
Oyster mushrooms are an absolute gem among wild mushrooms. They’re loaded with nutrients such as calcium and iron, and Italians eat them not only as a dainty side dish to meat and fish but wild oyster mushrooms taste “meaty” enough to make a perfect meat replacement for vegetarians and vegans! Traditional Italian recipes include preserving them in oil, frying them in a pan or adding them to pasta dishes or roasted vegetables. In addition to their intense flavor and amazing nutritional properties, they have many medical benefits as well.
Oyster mushrooms are anti-inflammatory, lower cholesterol, balance high blood pressure, and serve as an antioxidant and immunity booster. Some even say they have anti-cancer properties. While this mushroom is being sold in a capsule form in pharmacies due to its healing powers, nothing beats the distinctive flavor and nutrient content found in the freshly-foraged wild oyster mushrooms found in Italian forests!
King Trumpet Mushroom
King Trumpet/Oyster Mushroom (cardoncelli)
This mushroom is popular in the southern regions of Italy, such as Puglia, Calabria or Sardinia. It’s like a sister to the oyster mushroom in that it has great nutritious value and health benefits. The taste is more subtle, which makes it a great and balanced companion to meat, fish, vegetables, pasta, legumes, rice and many other meals. It’s valued for its texture and umami flavor. They are often ignored by porcino mushroom hunters so don’t forget to watch your steps, you might get lucky! In traditional Italian cooking, King Trumpets are grilled then preserved in olive oil.
Treasure truffle hunt in Mugello, Tuscany Credit: Poggio alle Ville
Truffles (tartufi) Credit: Elisabetta Verdone, founder of Monnalisa Language School in Florence
Of course, we’ve left the best one until last! Whether you love them or hate them, they have a distinct and unique flavor. Italians use truffles in simple, few-ingredient meals – thinly sliced over fresh pasta with parmigiano cheese. In any case, truffles go really well with fat which highlights their flavor, such as butter, cream or oils. Unfortunately, they’re very very difficult to find in the wild. But you can try your luck and get rich by finding the most expensive food in the world! (Fun fact: European white truffles can sell for as much as $3,600 a pound!) If you’re a foodie, don’t miss the annual Truffle Festival held every November in San Miniato, an authentic hidden gem in Tuscany.
2. Wild Greens
Wild greens grow all over Italy and are a vital part of most Italians’ diet. It’s no wonder; they are widely available, foraging for them doesn’t cost anything and they’re also multipurpose; used in both sweet and savory dishes in traditional Italian cooking. Some are also used as herbal teas and even as a natural remedy for treating different kinds of health issues. Let’s dive into understanding these healthy and delicious wild plants!
Rampion bellflower (raponzoli)
Did you know that Rapunzel got her name after this plant? Its inconspicuous light blue or violet flowers growing in meadows and pine forests seem more like a nice decoration for a vase than a delicious and edible ingredient, but its leaves full of vitamin C have been used widely throughout Italy (especially Sicily) as a substitute for spinach. They are usually lightly steamed and accompanied with olive oil as a traditional Italian side dish. Its root is also edible – usually processed the same way as radish or parsnip. Its young roots and leaves taste the best, so it’s recommended to pick bellflowers in spring.
Wild borage Credit: Lawn Health
Wild borage (borragine)
If you find yourself in Liguria, a northern region of Italy, don’t forget to taste local ravioli or pansoti. There’s a high chance that they are filled with delicious wild borage! This hairy plant can be utilized in many ways in traditional Italian cooking; raw leaves eaten as a salad, steamed as a substitute for spinach, sweet honey-flavored flowers used as a dessert decoration, seeds pressed to extract oil, and more! This nutritious and multipurpose plant can be found in sunny areas of forests and pastures all year round.
Wild cardoon (cardoni or cardi)
This wild vegetable is popular mostly in Sicily. While it resembles an artichoke and is closely related, the indigenous Sicilian cardoon plant is called cynara cardunculus. Unlike most greens, wild cardoon is a winter vegetable, usually picked in early December. Only the stalks are used in dishes and its hard fibers on the surface must be removed before cooking. After you boil the cardoon in salted water for about 10 minutes or until softened, you can eat it just as it is.
Another method popular in Tuscany, is to preserve it in olive oil with garlic and anchovies for a tasty appetizer. In the Abruzzo region, cardoon soup is even a traditional Christmas lunch meal. And when the fried food cravings hit, make “carduna”, a traditional Sicilian dish!
Wild dandelion and wild chicory (cicoria and cicoriella)
These rather bitter leaves are widely popular in the southern Italian regions Apulia and Liguria and grow on unkempt lawns and meadows. Wild dandelion was once one of the most important greens picked by women in the fields, then used in their kitchens and sold on markets. It is also a very versatile and nutritious kind of vegetable, used in main courses, as a side dish, in pasta sauces, or even in desserts!