I knew I’d made the right decision to study at the University of Gastronomic Sciences when our course coordinator, Professor Pieroni, took us foraging on day one.
Getting out and learning about sustainability on a practical level was what I’d been craving, and a big part of why I decided to move to Italy and enrol in the Masters. ‘Foraging’ has been a culinary trend word of late, spurred by a collective of intrepid Nordic chefs, but for us this edible tour of Pollenzo – where the university is – was all about understanding and engaging with our local environment.
“The scientific study of the relationships that exist between people and plants.” That’s the very technical definition (…as provided by Wikipedia) of ethnobotany, the discipline that forms the focus of much of our course. The university offers four different majors for the Masters in Food Culture & Communications – ours is Human Ecology and Sustainability.
Whether it’s a class on ethnozymology (the study of humans fermenting things), ethnobiology (how humans relate to plants/animals), cultural ecology (how humans adapt to their environment) or biodynamic agriculture, these central themes of people and plants are always appearing. Really, it’s about what people know about plants, how they’re able to use them – whether for food, medicinal, spiritual or other uses – and how they take care of them (or not) in the natural world. More broadly, the relationship between people and plants dictates a lot in the food world – from food security to nutrition to soil health, and so much more.
And I’m pretty much constantly nerding out on all this stuff!
Back to our first day of class – what delicious wild fixings did we take home? Turns out there’s a whole lot of edible plants within 15 minutes’ walk of uni. In spring, we picked up elderflower, stinging nettle, blackberry leaf, burdock, farinello (wild spinach), luppolo (wild hops), guasca (native to Colombia, later introduced to Italy and went feral), purslane and pigweed, plus wild chamomile, blackberries, mulberries, elderberries and wild plums as the weather heated up.
It didn’t take our class of keen foragers long before these novel ingredients became the inspiration for many a dinner party, which we dubbed the Friday Foraged Feasts. Read on about our spring and summer banquets if you want to feel really, really hungry…