The nettle is not only prickly…

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When the underbrush leads to the hellebore, the crocuses and the violets and the hazel nuts are filled with hanging yellow flowers, the season of field herbs is not far off.  The use of these seedlings, sprouted from the earth just after the lethargy of winter, has a very long history.  Partly, in fact, many years ago, that is, when our ancestors realized that, aside from game, also fruits and vegetables and the first seedlings of the year could be good to eat. Leaves and roots were an integral part of their daily diets, and also were remedies for illnesses.  If necessary, they even played the role of almost magical plants, which were fundamental for countering negativity and misfortune.

He who has had the privilege of tasting this first greenery, tender and fresh, cooked or cured as per the recipe, must either pass through Tuscany at the end of winter or else live here and thereby fully enjoy the good and genuine regional cooking.  Here, obviously, the teaching of how to gather these small treasures is transmitted in great secrecy from grandmother to mother to daughter. The seedlings are almost never found on the refrigerated shelves of supermarkets, and to taste a dish based on wild herbs is really an experience not to be missed.

As mentioned, it is not easy to find people who are expert in distinguishing the good varieties in a field rich in fresh vegetation.  On the one hand, one must be careful not to gather near streets with heavy traffic or on land which is polluted or too fertilized; on the other hand, instead, it is most important to determine which varieties are edible and which are inedible and, additionally, which are poisonous.

We, to begin, decided to go safely with a plant which grows worldwide and which is easily recognizable; if you happen to touch it, it will cause a burning pain which lasts about 24 hours:  stinging nettles.

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The nettle has been appreciated by the ancient Greeks and Romans and by all peoples after them right up to the present day. Rumor has it that this started much much earlier, with even the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar being fed exclusively nettles for seven years. Offhand it may seem terrible or at least monotonous, but if you take into consideration nettle fillings, sauces, gravies, pies, salads, omlets, risottos, stuffed rolls and so forth, the entire story becomes more believable (and more bearable for the palate…).

Under our loveliest apple tree, near the children’s swing, there is a small space which was always held hostage by nettles and which, until today, we had never managed to weed out.  Therefore, we offered them an agreement: at the end of winter we collect the nettles from the plants that refuse to leave the occupied space, using them to make a nettle sauce ideally suited to accompany pasta, rice, or gnocchi. In return, we let the remaining nettles flourish, multiply, and grow in peace. Will we have done the right thing?

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Nettle Sauce (4 persons)

  • 500 gr. freshly harvested nettles (ours is from under the apple tree…)
  • 1 jar of peeled tomatoes
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Parmesan cheese to taste

Clean, wash, dry, and chop the nettles and put into a saucepan with olive oil; brown for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes with a bit of salt and pepper, cooking over low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes.  The result is a tasty sauce which goes particularly well on rice, pasta, or gnocchi; add grated parmesan to taste.

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Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x

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Discovering the Maremma

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After the last blog entry on the Giant of the Apennines, which can be admired at the Parco Mediceo di Pratolino, though in the direction opposite to that which we really want to explore, it is time for us to get to the other side of Tuscany, more exactly in Maremma.

n ancient times, this immense region was populated by the Etruscans. The presence of fertile and hilly lands, vast mineral deposits and easy access to the sea allowed the development of a prosperous economy. As testimony to this, Vetulonia, one of the wealthiest Etruscan cities, had the right to coin its own money, more or less as Europe issues Euros, the Americans dollars, the Chinese yuan, and so on.

Over the centuries, the Maremma has seen the best and the worst times:  it has, infact, been defended, defeated, conquered, divided, subjugated, exploited, abandoned, rediscovered, and finally healed and refurbished. The territory, moreover, was for a long time covered by vast coastal marshes with swamps and rivers without levees which flooded the earth covered by Mediterranean shrubland.  This caused serious poverty, as the lack of arable land led to small harvests, and open pasture land was practically nonexistent.  In addition, the inhabitants had to deal with malaria, which carried away hundreds of thousands to their deaths.

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Thus, a majority of the people emigrated in the hope of finding a better future.  In practice, the region was almost totally abandoned.  The destiny of the Maremma started to recover only in the middle of the 18th century, when Grand Duke Leopold II of Lorraine (who himself died of malaria) began a process of land reclamation which was completed only under the fascist regime of Mussolini in the middle of the last century.

History has profoundly affected the region, which remains rugged and wild, giving rise to inhabitants who are edgy, proud, and independent, endowed with great courage, sense of duty, and undeniable charm.

Therefore, when I was presented with the opportunity of participating in a photography course organized by a true “Maremmano”, I could not resist.  I also liked the contrast between the region’s severity and harshness and the prospect of seeing one of my favourite things:  wild orchids.  Towards March/April the fields  of our azienda agricola host several varieties, but I was particularly  interested in seeing an orchid which does not grow in our area.

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And so, one beautiful Sunday morning in mid-May we left at five o’clock in order to arrive in time for our meeting at eight o’clock sharp.  The trip was calm and relaxing, the weather soft and mild; and to see the rising sun while walking to one’s destination is always a spectacle that leaves me speechless.

The group of professional and amateur photographers was close-knit, maybe because they already knew one another, maybe because they had already spent the previous day taking photos together, followed by an evening together enjoying tasty Maremma dishes (possibly accompanied by a good glass of some local wine).  We had to arrange care for our dog and cat, therefore overnighting in the Maremma was out of the question. The head of our group, an expert photographer who knows the area well, made us drive about fifteen minutes to stop at a certain point and scour the land near the guardrail. It went without fail, because there we quickly found our first orchids; small, insignificant, and light years away from what we usually think of as orchids. Our expert (in fact, there were two), nevertheless, went into explanations regarding the peculiarities of the plantlings, the spotted leaves of one of them, another whose flowers resembled the abdomen of an insect, and the difficulties of finding and identifying them.

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After everyone had taken photos of these first varieties, the two leaders took us to a hill about five or six kilometers away. The improvised car park afforded a lovely panoramic view, but our destination was on the opposite side of the road. A meadow filled with a huge variety of flowers, almost all pink.  Incredible! I have never seen such a thing in my life. There, although hampered by a strong breeze, we could indulge ourselves:  orchids as far as the eye could see, all there for good-willed photographers who had hope that the wind would cease at least for long enough to take a few shots.  Personally, I found what I was looking for:  the purple or major orchid (Orchis purpurea) which, windy or not, completely satisfied my expectations.

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After an hour and hundreds of photos, our itinerary carried us towards a village where we bought provisions for a sack lunch. A few more kilometers brought us to our final destination:  a forest where we enjoyed our lavish meal.  The reason we finished in these woods were two varieties of orchid that are difficult to recognize as such.  One white, slender, and concealed in the undergrowth; the other, often in groups, brown, barely more than dried herbs to a normal human (my apologies to the organizers). Even photographing them with special lenses did not make them more spectacular. Alas.

By now it was late afternoon.  The photographers wanted to make a few shots of “reptiles”:  a lizard, a millipede, a rat snake, a viper.  Not for me, thank you.  Now that I think about it, perhaps a green lizard:  innocuous and with spectacular emerald colour, but that afternoon no such specimens appeared.

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It was time to return home. The day had been lovely, interesting and entertaining, and the variety of orchids really amazing.  I had not expected such delicate and ephemeral beauty in such a wild place.  Also the organizers had surprised me: open, pleasant, tolerant, patient…and vegans; maybe a bit far from the image of the Maremma, but what can one say? Times change. Until next time!

Anneliese Rabl (translation John McAuliffe) x

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