Pienza native Caterina Cardia has foraged in the spectacular lands of the Val d’Orcia ever since she was a young girl. Today she supplies some of the best restaurants in Italy with native wild plants, which she has helped recuperate and propagate. She helps run her partner’s lovely restaurant La Buca Vecchia and supplies wild herbs, salads, greens and flowers to the kitchen. She also runs courses and tastings for anyone who wants to learn more about wild foraging in the Val D’Orcia.
How did you get into foraging in the first place?
My grandmother was a forager and as a little girl I used to follow her as she went to pick mushrooms and herbs. As I was growing up in my teens I started suffering from anorexia and was really only eating vegetables and fruit: I wanted to loose weight, so I kept it to a minimum. A paediatrician helped me by suggesting I take an interest in the little I was eating and where it was coming from. This sparked my curiosity and also a sense of autonomy, which as teen I was seeking. Eventually I started buying books, learning, and making my first own salads and discoveries, which allowed me to go further than the 15 or so salad leaves my grandmother had been picking, and discover tastes and combinations. In time I wondered what this could become and eventually I asked a herbalist to teach me systemic botany which opened this whole world to me.
Your next step brought you to Florence…
Yes, with a bunch of friends we started living in the countryside near Florence and I was taking care of the vegetable garden and doing my usual foraging. I wasn’t managing to find a job so one day I decided to try to take my foraged salads to one of the chefs in Florence who most famously work with hyper seasonal food, Fabio Picchi of Cibreo – I literary knocked on his door with my basket of herbs, and next thing I knew he gave me my own work salad work station. Each morning I went picking and then prepared all the wild salads for the restaurant, for the next 4 years.
Since you moved back to Southern Tuscany, you have developed your business supplying many restaurants around Italy, what do you feel has changed from the early years?
First of all perceptions: 10 years ago when I started working with Picchi, people thought I was a crazy woman, now if I say I run a wild herb farm people know exactly what I do.
The oddity really is that this is a farm – we seed, turn crops etc, so we can have a supply for most of the year. It has become increasingly difficult to find clean and wild spots to forage. I live in the Val d’Orcia, which is a place of outstanding natural beauty, but has only a few untouched spots: the agriculture here is mostly grains, which kills any wild herbs, and vines, which have a similar effect. So the only places really where wild herbs remain are through the olive groves – it really is the only symbiosis left.
I have foraged these lands since I was a little girl and I know the signs and how to find wild herbs, but the spaces where I can do this are getting progressively smaller.
Are there any herbs that you can’t find anymore – perhaps they have disappeared?
Yes, loads. For example one of the basis of salads when I was young was what we call gallinella, but it is a wild valerian (Valerianella locusta), and it’s now impossible to find near by, but it used to be our Easter morning breakfast: an egg, bread with a type of bacon and gallinella salad. This was a tradition for a long long time, which has now sadly gone.
One of the things that really have fascinated me in this field is these plants grow in synergy with their origin. We tend to import and plant all sorts of things, but if you look you can find plants that have similar properties – as if nature gives you what you need. For example the Aloe, which is a wonderful plant with great properties and is being planted more and more. It behaves as local succulents do and people has been used as an emollient forever.
I find some similarities with the importance of New Nordic Cuisine these last 10 years, in foraging and preserving flavours. Do you find more and more people are looking at what you are doing with interests?
Yes, very much, and constantly growing, also for the courses I do. It is also linked to the changing climate and realisation that if are buying a tomato even just from a near by country like Spain, something is seriously wrong. Of even if you think you should have a tomato when it is not season. People are realising that the industrial food model after WWII has brought a miseducation of diets and food stuff. People are not approaching me because what I do is reminiscent of a world that doesn’t exist anymore, people are approaching me to learn about health and nutrition. People who take supplements are looking for alternative foods that can help with achieving health.
Did you ever have a mishap?
Yes, once many years ago. I was looking for a particular plant, but one that was very similar got me and it made me ill for a short while. It really takes years of experience in an area to have the confidence that I have now. But I constantly learn and progress my knowledge both through books and by interacting with experts, botanists and chefs. It’s a synergy really, just like the plants I forage.