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Sorrel, Goat's Beard, Stinging Nettles: how to recognize them and how to cook them

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* Mina Novello, expert on traditional Biella cooking

Gathering wild herbs and looking for the right recipes for cooking them is good fun and something you can do with kids too. To learn to identify the various species, let’s listen to some tips from Mina Novello, an expert on traditional Biella recipes and a “herb lady”, who can recognize all 40 of the wild herbs growing in Oasi Zegna and knows the best recipes for them.

Here’s what she says.

“In this season, in Oasi Zegna’s pastures and woodland clearings, on its sunny slopes and shady hollows, it’s easy to find at least 15 species of wild herb useful in the kitchen (without counting those used exclusively as aromatics, like thyme, water mint, etc.). Some of them are important ingredients in traditional Biella recipes.

Many of them are cooked together as vegetables to accompany egg or meat based dishes or cured meats or in flavorsome soups. In these herbal mixes, generically referred to as erbëtte or erbi, there is no single predominant flavor: the strong taste of one will be blunted by the sweetness of another or balanced by the bitterness of yet another. Picking nettles, sorrel, bistorta, wild spinach and spiked rampion (the list could go on) and cooking them together produces an amalgam of flavors and aromas that no kitchen garden can imitate.

Don’t forget to add to this mixture some tips of lady’s mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris), known as erba ventaglina because of its round, fan-like leaves and also with the poetic local name of erba dla rusà (because its leaves catch dewdrops). Mixed herbs are also the base for süpa mitunà, spring omelettes (friciulin) and various fillings for ravioli, slices of meat or beet leaves, to which they add flavor and softness.
Many have such dignity of flavor that they can be used on their own to create dishes that deserve not to be forgotten. Sorrel (Rumex acetosa), known here as erba brüsca, produces tender new sprouts every time it’s cut and is an ingredient in a particular fondue made with maccagno cheese and served with polenta. Goat’s beard (Aruncus dioicus) is very common in shady gullies, especially in the Bocchetto Sessera zone, and much sought after for its red buds, which are boiled and dressed with oil, vinegar and boil eggs. This is one of countless species that common speech lumps together under the term spars salvej (wild asparagus), despite its having no resemblance or botanical affinity with asparagus.
In the meadows, it’s easy to find bistorta (Polygonum  bistorta - in dialect lengue, i.e. tongues), whose tender and tasty leaves are picked before they flower and are cooked like spinach. Not to mention watercress (Nasturtium officinale), which abounds in our numerous brooks and streams and is an ingredient in luscious spring salads, ideally dressed with local walnut oil.

On scree slopes and near stone huts you can pick sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus – or craspìn, laciantìn in dialect), of which both leaves and flower buds can be blanched and cooked in a pan with butter and garlic, a method also used for common nipplewort (Lapsana communis – known here as galiñe grasse or galinëtte). Both these plants are used to make delicate rice soups or delicious omelettes and are also an excellent accompaniment for fried eggs. The same can be said for common mallow (Malva neglecta), which has always been seen as a plant of many virtues and is highly prized in the kitchen, being an ingredient in the well known ris e riundele, a delicate rice and milk soup.

Rice and milk also feature in soup made with stinging nettleerba di borgnu, meaning herb of the blind, being recognizable without being seen. Nettles are also good in omelettes and as a side dish. Herders who spent their summers in Valsessera’s high pastures used to chop raw nettle leaves and mix them with cream, salt and vinegar to make a salad.

Of the more tender and sweeter and therefore more sought after herbs is spiked rampion (Phyteuma sp. plurimae – in dialect masuchët or ajucchi or erbëtte), of which we also eat the fleshy and mildly hazel tasting roots. It’s mostly its leaves that are used however, for soups like the mitunà I already mentioned, or the flower stems before blossoming, tied in bunches, boiled and prepared like asparagus, which they rival in delicacy of flavor. The cooking water is kept for making pulenta grisa, a special sort of pulenta cunscia that’s even tastier, if that’s possible.
Near farms and in well fertilized meadows, you’ll find the luxuriant and delicious Good-King-Henry (Chenopodium bonus-enricus or barcùi), a sort of mountain spinach whose leaves have a floury feel on the underside and make your fingers dusty when picking it. Barcùi is cooked in soup, risotto, as a side dish, in omelettes and in pulenta grisa.

There’s also a herb used only in upper Valle Sessera: alpine lovage (Ligusticum mutellina - erba mutuliña), an aromatic plant that grows near the snowline and is picked by herders to flavor risotto. And in other parts of the Biella area, people pick the flowering tips of alpine clover (Trifolium alpinum - erba dal büru): a handful of its globous flowers are enough to give food a buttery fragrance and that’s how you make the most extraordinary and surprising of our milk based soups.”

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