As you well know I love to take walks up in the hills above Florence and it is also the place where Shelly and I foraged for wild asparagus a few weeks ago. After our asparagus foraging Shelly and I wondered if there was anyone we knew who would be able to take us on an expedition in the Tuscan hills.
Alessandro was our man. His beautiful wife is another fellow up at I Tatti with our husbands and so we thought seeing as he was Italian and a man of the land we could pick his brain a little on what he knew about foraging. As it turns out Alessandro knows a lot about everything and anything in the great outdoors of Italy and he was more than happy to take us on a field trip.
After we dropped his lovely wife at work for the day, the three of us and Alessandro’s adorable 9-month old baby drove out behind Fiesole to a rundown monastery he knew of. It took us about 25 minutes from Fiesole in the car and when we arrived the views were breathtaking.
I find it really hard to believe that such a beautiful building could be left to slowly decompose with the sands of time. I couldn’t help but look at the monastery and think it would make a magical B&B or a fantastic cooking school retreat where guests could come and learn the secrets of Tuscan cooking while taking in the breathtaking views sweeping off to the right. Yes, I could see myself running a very nice business here indeed!
The field before us looked like many we have walked past on a regular basis, however, it wasn’t until Alessandro started talking about the different tracks, flowers, bushes, birds and plants that the field came alive and the day started to get interesting. Here are just a few of the things I learnt on this day…
This was a hedgehog hole where it would be furrowing for food, Alessandro knew this because of the size of the burrow (very small and narrow, very easy to step in and twist your ankle).
Did you know orchids grow wild in the Tuscan countryside? I did not and what was most strange was the fact that there was one in this field in early April. They are usually seen anywhere from September on. Isn’t it beautiful?
We tasted wild rose hip that was very sweet, tangy and full of white seeds. It almost tasted of those fruit straps that you can buy for kids snacks, but with more flavour. Apparently they make a jam with the berries but after eating one I though it would be a lot of work for little reward so I stuck with picking them off the tree and eating them a-la-natural.
One of the most interesting facts we learnt was one regarding these golfball size, brown almost tumbleweed like balls.
The story goes something like this…When a local wasp (vespa) is laying its larva, it drills a tiny hole into the stem of a tree and inserts its larva before flying off. The tree then protects itself by growing and covering the said tiny hole with small twig like branches that form into a ball around the larva deposit. This then provides a place for the larva to grow and feed from the tree. When the larva hatches, the vespa flies out of its coocoon and eventually the twig ball gets blown off by the wind. Isn’t mother nature just the most amazing, magical power there is? The tree’s protection enables these wasps to grow.
The only freaky thing about knowing this, is how many little tumbleweed balls you then see. There are thousands of these pods lying on the ground all over Tuscany!
My final tip/tale I have for you is about wild carrots. I have seen these wiry, dried looking sticks in the field near our house and never gave them a second thought. However, Alessandro told us that when the new shoots start to grow and the top starts growing little white flowers the wild carrots are ready to be eaten. Hares, boars and deer love them and when they are in season the root of this plant looks and smells like carrots.
The one Alessandro pulled up for us to take a look at was old and dead, however, you couldn’t help but notice the shape of the root. I am now waiting with bated breath for the new season’s wild carrots to appear. I know humans don’t eat them but I just want to see the root.
There is something wonderful about looking out the window into the surrounding fields and actually knowing there is a whole ecosystem out there buzzing about. Now that I have just a small insight into the local land it gives me even greater pleasure to walk around trying to spot the things pointed out to me on this wonderful day up in the hills with Alessandro and Shelly. Maybe now I’d have a better chance of survival if I ever got lost on a hike.
What do you know about the natural surrounds where you live?