You know spring is around the corner when you spot the first earthworm after the winter lull. The bees come out of their hibernation bubble—the winter imagery of crunchy frosted autumn leaves changes to the sprouting of fresh green grass. Wildflowers blossom everywhere, creating a psychedelic bed for the woods, as the bees begin to pollinate restlessly. All these together symbolize the return of fertility. Birdsongs become prolonged, and your time indoors shorter. It is also the time to go out and catch the last gifts of the winter earth.
As a child, I had little or no exposure to wild forest foraging – even though backyard fruit-picking was an inherent part of my growing up. We always knew which street had the most abundant trees, and which ones remained uncared for. Every season brought with itself a new sidewalk flavor, and stealing mangoes in summer from the neighbor’s garden was an undisputed tradition. From plucking chaulai (amaranth greens) for my mum growing wild in our parking lot, to staining my hands while picking Indian mulberries from the pavement trees in my neighborhood. The Delhi I grew up in was greener – in the early ’90s when social media dint exist, my urban scavenging adventures remained unperturbed.
After moving to Italy, the definition of “foraging” became a mere lifestyle. Every changing month brought in a new set of wild herbs. We started last year in Autumn with porcini and other edible fungi. Fast-forward to my current landscape of winter, slowly giving it away to spring, as earth’s dormant microorganisms come alive. Dandelion roots are one of the first edible delights bursting from the earth with the changing season — before spring officially makes a grand come back with all its glory.
Beginning of the foraging season
It’s all about deciphering the good ones from the bad ones. The vicious ones from the delicious ones. It takes a tiny error, a slight slip of judgment for you to pick poisonous shrooms instead of the elitist porcini. The spiritual and philosophical context behind foraging – especially the chance between the good and the evil is what gets me the most excited – slipping briefly and landing in hell or looking vigilantly and finding treasure. This mindful act also helps you connect with the wild hands-on. For me, foraging is food for the soul. The whole idea of going out with friends into the wild, to find the nutritious gifts of Gaia, while immersing yourself in mud and worms. Humans by default were hunter-gatherers before they eventually became growers. Today many visionary chefs, as well as pop-culture, talks about the prevalence of foraging. While Rene Redzepi affirms that there is no better place for a treasure hunt than the wild, Woody Allen, on the other hand, calls nature “an enormous restaurant”.
Foraging for Dandelion Root
You may be most familiar with dandelion as a stubborn weed that never seems to leave your lawn or garden. Or perhaps the blow-in-the-air picturesque bulbs that make an appearance in autumn. I was told the best ones are found in vast grass fields (lying in the foothills) – therefore the name ‘Radici da Campo’ translating to “roots of the field” in Italian. While cultures around the world either celebrate or lament the idea dandelions sprouting – Italians have found a way to love the nascent roots of this medicinal weed. Having grown up in the hood, both Massimiliano and Matteo knew the right spots to find these in abundance. As we walked through the wilderness, we were accompanied by all the perks of living in the mountains. Pristine alpine air, the flow of a delicate stream, the dolomites, fresh greens, and the sky as blue as a fine sapphire, to name a few.
The purpose of this forage session was to bring home as many dandelion roots as possible. But how will I identify the root amidst all the grass? Thanks to my fellow foragers, from the onset of our excursion I was given specific guidelines to reach my goal. Find below cues to consider while foraging for dandelion roots:
- They appear in their best edible form around 15-20 days before the spring equinox
- Look for smaller leaves covering a lesser surface area on the ground
- Always remain focused on what you’re looking for in this case it is the ROOT, not the leaves
- The root, in this case, is the white edible bulb full of antioxidants and health properties
- You don’t want the plant with long leaves – the longer the leaves, the more bitter it gets!
- Protip: Look for the hair
- When the flower arises in a button shape it’s time to stop collecting the roots (which basically means spring has sprung)
- Go after a rainy day
Pierce the soil about 1 cm around the stem area. Make it deep enough to avoid difficulty while pulling out the root. Snip off the hard root touching the white part. Wash them until no more grit falls. “Remember the white part is what you eventually want to eat and what pacifies the bitterness of the leaves.” they said in unison.
The Dandelion Plant:
The dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) known as a garden weed, is actually a traditional healing herb with medicinal qualities. It arrives in the silent moments before spring begins and winter is ending. Native to Eurasia, this humble member of the aster family has traveled far and wide. The entire dandelion plant from root to blossom is edible with a slightly bitter, chicory-like taste.
- The dandelion is rich in nutrients, including protein, calcium, iron, and Vitamins A and C.
- The plant has long been used in herbal medicine to aid in digestion and help stimulate appetite
- One of the plant’s common nicknames in French—pissenlit (pee-the-bed)—attests to dandelion’s use in traditional healing cultures as a valuable diuretic agent (rich in potassium).
- Herbalists today believe that it can aid in the treatment of many ailments, including acne, eczema, high cholesterol, heartburn, gastrointestinal disorders, diabetes, and even cancer
- The root of the dandelion is rich in the carbohydrate inulin, which is a type of soluble fiber found in plants that supports the growth and maintenance of healthy bacterial flora in your intestinal tract
- Dandelions are a rich source of beta-carotene and polyphenolic compounds (the highest concentration in flowers), both of which are known to have strong antioxidant capabilities that can prevent aging and certain diseases.
Dandelion Root & Lard Salad
Wild dandelion greens with fermented wine vinegar and lardo deglaze. This dish is simple, delicious, and ecological, made using elements from the forest. Paired with Natalino’s homemade, and well-seasoned lardo aged with the leftover fat from the pig he hunted this season. This piece of lardo is way more sustainable than the supermarket chemically grown vegetables – and facilitates a nose-to-tail offering in a secured and regulated hunting environment.
- Freshly plucked dandelion roots
- White wine vinegar
Sizzle pieces of lardo until crispy and brown in a hot pan, on the side attentively clean the radicchio under cold tap water. On the top put potatoes to boil in a pot of boiling water. Deglaze the lardo bits with wine vinegar, and pour over this sour and smoky liquid on the freshly cleaned radicchio roots. Protip: Skip the bread and serve your greens with boiled potatoes (and tell me later how amazing it was).
- Some research suggests that the Omega-3 fatty acids Homo sapiens gleaned from foraging shellfish on the seashore is what made us more “intelligent” than other human races.
- It has also been suggested that foraging should be considered an important ecosystem service, due to the cultural benefits that people gain freedom from the land.
- A growing body of work on land-based cottage industries, such as wild blueberry and mushroom picking, has found that the wild product trade can empower communities by allowing them to develop new local industries that they can control.