Hunting for wild herbs in a garden and vineyard, then cooking our finds for a 5-course meal: this was the programme of an amazing foraging and cooking workshop in the beautiful Langhe area of Piedmont that I attended last Saturday.
Leading the 8-strong group was French botanist Francois Couplan, an authority on wild herbs, author of several books on the subject and recipient of innumerable anecdotes from his travels around the world.
We started early with a tasty herbal tea prepared by our host and chef Alessandra Buglioni at Castello di Verduno, a hotel, restaurant and winery in the heart of the Barolo producing region. The spring morning was sunny but chilly and before our trip to the vineyard we combed the castle’s grounds where, on Alessandra’s wish, wild herbs grow amongst edible and ornamental plants.
We found mustardy wild brassicas, a peppery and tiny watercress, aromatic wild celery, strong smelling wild garlic, nettle and borage. We were encouraged to engage with all these plants with all our senses, looking, touching and smelling them before cautiously putting then in our mouths. For each specimen Francois regaled us with facts on their medicinal properties, tips on how to tell them apart from their toxic lookalikes, and stories on other species related to them growing in Europe and around the world.
Then it was time to move to a very special vineyard. Instructed by his wife Alessadra, winemaker Olek Bondonio refrained from mowing and turning the ground of a few rows of his organic vineyard, allowing several species of wild plants to grow. We found wild chives, plantago and dandelions, chickweed and poppy leaves (they taste amazing!) thistle (lovely when young and tender) and wild lettuce.
It was approaching lunchtime and there in the vineyard Francois and two Japanese cooks from the castle conferred on what dishes to prepare. They decided on wild garlic crostini, borage leaves parcels with a millet, red lentil, onion and olive filling, a pasta with plantago, hazelnut and garlic pesto and a dessert of apple slices layered with nettle caramel. And of course a big salad with all the leaves and flowers we could eat raw with a special wild herb, miso and tahini dressing.
We got back and cooked until well past 3pm. Sorting out and cleaning all the leaves for the salad was a feat, as well as preparing the caramel for the dessert, a traditional caramel with the addition of white wine vinegar and nettle which got slightly burnt in places. The wild garlic and fresh cheese crostini was easy to prepare with the addition of lemon juice and olive oil, while the mushy red lentil and cooked millet filling for the borage parcels, with fresh thinly chopped olives and onion, was a really tempting snack for all of us hungry people, even before they went in the oven.
When we finally got to the aperitif, Francois surprised us with an cocktail he made in secret, and asked us to guess the ingredients. It was a bottle of Favorita white wine, macerated with orange and lemon juice and a blend of melissa, oxalis, sage and rosemary, with some sparkling water added at the end. It was fresh and aromatic, and went very well with the strong wild garlic crostini.
The salad was amazing, crunchy and full of flavours, while the borage parcels with a local cheese melted on the top were simply delicious. The plantago pesto was a surprise, very tasty with all the hazelnuts nuttiness taking centre stage and the dessert was also good, although probably my least favourite of all our creations.
At lunch it was great to chat to Alessandra, who is now teaching cooking techniques at the nearby academy of gastronomy in Pollenzo, and who sometimes organises cooking classes in the castle’s kitchen. What was a slightly subdued and sleepy bunch of people in the chilly morning, by the end of the day turned into a warm team who chatted about each other lives around the table and shared in the surprise of how amazing the world of wild herbs really is. I had fun, it was great and I look forward to taking part in something similar here in the UK.
For info on Francois Couplan: www.couplan.com
For info on Castello di Verduno: www.castellodiverduno.com
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