Crisp wild thistle salad, at once earthy and bitter, from the Puglian highlands.
Roasted turnips with pungent wild garlic and capers, foraged from the hills of Lazio.
Mullet ceviche, fresh, bright and evocative of the mysterious Venetian lagoon.
These dishes’ central ingredients, though they come from all across Italy, share one thing in common: they’re all foraged from hills, coasts, forests and flatlands–the wild. Wild foods, medicines, and fibers have sustained the Italian population for generations: when domesticated crops failed–due to bad harvests, unpredictable climate or conflicts–wild species persisted, nourishing the people of that land. These foraging practices have long been part of a larger tradition of relating to the natural world in which other species were not only substance but stories, symbols and even kin. The academic field of ethnobotany emerged to study these historical, cultural relationships between people and the rest of their natural environment with the aim of valorizing folk knowledge and sustaining biodiversity. Understanding these traditions has arguably never been more important than now, in this age of climate change and instability, as wild species offer potential solutions for resilience and reconnection to the natural world.
With the rise of modernization and globalization, however–as supermarket shelves filled with basic necessities and people migrated from the countryside to cities–knowledge of traditional foraging practices has declined dramatically. Recently, these vital traditions are beginning to reappear all across Italy…in our restaurants. Three chefs–Francesco Montaruli of Mezza Pagnotta, Alessandro Miocchi of Retrobottega and Marco Bravetti of Tocia–are embedding their traditional, local knowledge into every dish they serve at their restaurants. For our three-part ethnobotany series, which kicks off with this article, I sat down with each of these chefs to learn how they’re using cuisine as a language that tells the story of their local landscapes, from Ruvo di Puglia to Rome to Venice. In doing so, they’re helping to transform the very landscape of Italian dining.
In the heart of old-town Ruvo di Puglia, Mezza Pagnotta is tucked between apartment buildings and tight alleys, but from the moment I stepped inside, I may as well have been transported to the Puglian countryside that inspires the restaurant’s thoughtfully-crafted dishes. Bundles of drying herbs hang from the walls, and the floors are lined with baskets of foraged fare from which a cook, emerging from the kitchen, retrieves a root or a bulb every so often.
The entirely vegetarian tasting menu–which came to a mere 40 euros–included artichokes with borage pesto; leek rolls, filled with kale and wild rocket, in a fava bean cream; millefoglie of celeriac with goat cheese fondue and Berbere spice; fried wild mushroom steaks with potato and caper cream; Vesuvian tomato broth with wild mustard and crusco-style Lambrusco peppers; and, to finish, orange and almond cake with saffron cream. At the end of the meal, I leaned back luxuriously in my chair, feeling the kind of full that means nourishment, not over-satiation. I didn’t part ways before being gifted a bouquet of dried wild Puglian herbs and getting the chance to dive deeper into the stories behind the meal with chef Francesco Montaruli. The first thing I couldn’t help but notice about Francesco was his fiery red hair and beard, and as we talked, it became clear that this outward characteristic was complemented by an equally jovial, passionate personality. Francesco, who grew up in the plateaus of Puglia, emanates the spirit of the community and land that he and his brother Vincenzo now bring to life at Mezza Pagnotta.
Rachel Kent: Can you explain to me the history that led you to open Mezza Pagnotta? Feel free to go as far back in time as you’d like.
Francesco Montaruli: Mezza Pagnotta was born of the desire to bring to the table the memory of the suffering our father experienced: he was a farmer who lived through the post-war period and who had to live off of the foraged ingredients that we ourselves now use in our kitchen at Mezza Pagnotta. From our childhood, he taught us to recognize the vegetable plants that were the basis of his survival for both him and his family during the saddest periods of post-war Puglia. We wanted to redeem this memory with an artistic expression: the ethnobotanical cuisine we do today. The people of post-war Puglia used those plants as a matter of necessity, and we have returned to this style of cooking as a matter of artistic choice.
RK: In this contemporary period, when a lot of that old knowledge has been lost, how have you relearned to navigate the land and familiarize yourself with the edible landscape?
FM: We’ve managed to create a dialogue between us and the place we live every day by reading it and listening to it, but above all, by listening to the advice of our father and others who have preceded us–and I say “listen” because this wisdom has only ever been passed on orally. Listening to them is a crucial first step to understand the natural landscape, because we can only have a true dialogue between our human selves and the earth if someone teaches us the right lexicon to be able to dialogue in the first place. Teachings from elders with this knowledge has been an invaluable guide for our work. Sometimes, for example, Ciccillo [an elderly but endlessly spritely Puglian man who is one of Francesco’s foraging teachers] sends us messages and lets us know if a plant is in flower and what the best plants to collect that moment are. It’s about reading the signs and the messages of the plants that tell you, “okay, this is the right moment.” Otherwise, without this ancestral knowledge, we wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to distinguish anything among the millions of species of plants.
RK: What does ethnobotany mean to you?
FM: I am increasingly of the opinion that ethnobotany must become less and less an academic topic and more an everyday topic accessible to everyone. [Up until now, ethnobotany has largely remained inside university walls and in academic journals, but people like Francesco are popularizing it so that everyone can take part.] In fact, everyone should be practicing ethnobotany. My vision of ethnobotany is very human, very alive, very contemporary. It’s nothing more than a dialogue between humans and nature that offers us the opportunity to renew and restore. All you really need is the opportunity to interact with people who can pass this kind of knowledge onto you–in our case, that’s Ciccillo. And anyone can do this work of restoring the dialogue between themself and nature. You don’t need to be a farmer or a restaurateur working with food. You could be, for example, someone who works in a bank, but on the weekends, has the initiative to go and forage wild foods to make their weekly minestra soup. So for me, that’s what ethnobotany is: a true dialogue between humans and nature.
RK: How do you express the Puglian countryside at Mezza Pagnotta?
FM: The Puglian landscape expresses itself in our kitchen in a very free, simple, frugal way. Above all, what we’re trying to do is respect the ingredients. At times, for example, I’ll say to my colleagues in the kitchen, “You all should be asking your ingredients, ‘What do you want? How can I help you express yourself, or how can I make you stand out?’” And of course, they all look at me like I’m completely crazy, but in reality it’s exactly that. You need to understand the raw materials that you have in your hands in order to respect them. I’ll give you an example: something that’s absolutely delicious to eat raw is the stems of the puntarelle chicory plant. And if it’s already so good the way nature is offering it to you, why would you ever try to cook it? So for us, respecting the ingredients means giving them the right shape in our tasting menu. [The chicory family–with its characteristically bitter member plants like dandelions, cardoons and thistles–forms the backbone for much of foraging in southern Italy.]
RK: Given that what you do is so connected to the land, how is climate change beginning to impact the work you do at Mezza Pagnotta and the landscape of the Murgia, the semi-arid highlands and national park that you call home?
FM: This year, even as early as May, the Murgia was completely arid. It is an area that is truly at risk; it’s on the brink of desertification. Now, there are certain wild species, pretty much invasive plants, that don’t necessarily “belong” here but come from a more southern latitude. It’s these desert plants that are actually adapting very well to the changing climate, while the native plants from the Murgia are becoming more and more rare. I’ll give you a practical example: if Ciccillo could collect 15 kilos of spiny thistle a day 20 years ago, he collects three today. In large part, the major decrease in wildlife is because the Alta Murgia National Park is constrained by a bit of a contradiction. Like many rural parks in Italy, it’s also a place that’s experienced disastrous, ruthless, errant farming. So although it’s technically a conserved area, this awful kind of agriculture has been destroying and desertifying the land, and still does to this day. Now, the reality is that the sky no longer gives us any rain, and the soil likewise has nothing to offer. The Murgiano looks at the sky, which only reflects the soil–they’re both suffering. That’s the way things are now.
RK: So, in light of these stark realities, how do you envision the future of Mezza Pagnotta?
FM: The future of Mezza Pagnotta is somewhat uncertain insofar as it’s linked to the community where we find ourselves–a rural place that’s heavily influenced by the courageous small-scale farmers that live here. We’re doing a style of cooking that reminds them of the past. Our dishes are composed of simple ingredients that can be found right in the backyards of our fellow villagers, so they view it as a bit strange. Some of them say, “But I don’t want to go out to eat at a restaurant and be served the same things I ate today at home.” It’s a paradox we face exactly because our ingredients are the ones that tell the story of this territory. They represent the identity of this region. Above all, we try to be the guardians of traditions and customs, and especially of biodiversity. But despite everything we’re trying to do to promote the local cuisine, it’s still snubbed by our local people.
There are others, however, who appreciate and support what we do: we’ve just opened up a second project in a colonial villa two kilometers from Ruvo di Puglia called Casa Fenicia. It’s a wonderful villa whose walls are frescoed with beautiful botanical references from different places in the Mediterranean. The owner Federica, who fell in love with our cooking, asked if we would come cook in an ethnobotanical style there. There will be the possibility of lodging since there are four gorgeous rooms, each with its own ethnobotanical theme.
RK: Is there anything else you’d like Italy Segreta’s readers to know?
FM: We’ve been fighting for many years against the Italian state laws that regulate the collection of wild vegetables. We technically are not allowed to collect wild vegetables under current food safety laws. Unfortunately, the work we do is still clandestine. It’s not viewed well, so we are, in air quotes, “criminal”. And this is absurd because we are bringing to the table ingredients of great nutritional value that grow in a unique environment, but since they are ingredients that have no traceability, they must remain somewhat underground. Here at Mezza Pagnotta, we must (to a certain extent) remain underground. So my dream is that one day there may be some laws that regulate the collection of wild plants, ensuring these practices are valued and can become a true heritage.