I was born in Venice, the wonderful city which seems to float between the water and the sky. A real privilege, for sure, but water is dangerous when you’re a child, especially if it is surrounded by stones and steps. You need to go on a treasure hunt to discover grass, gardens, plants. “Venice is the oldest artificial city of the world” my art history teacher used to say, and I think he was right. I was lucky to be able to alternate this “artificiality” with plenty of nature in its purest state, which I found somewhere else. That is why I could recognize different colors and elements since I was a child. I was lucky also because my Grandparents grew in the countryside and effortlessly transmitted the knowledge of all kinds of wild herbs to my Mom. That is probably why I am quite good at that, too.There are things which I seem to have always known – I only need to remember how to use them. I can creatively mix wild plants according to their color, as if I had to paint something. I tend to do the same with light and composition – it just comes natural to me.
Wild plants represent the freedom of nature, which grows without asking permission to anybody. Seeds arrive and nobody waters them, except for the frost and the rain. They coexist without support, without protection – they simply grow. They multiply and scatter themselves, according to the winds. When I grew up I learnt to recognize plants through other means, as well. The Biblioteca Marciana in Venice hosts so many preciously and precisely painted pages. Monks were generally the greatest experts, but those who lived on an island – like San Francesco nel Deserto or San Lazzaro agli Armeni – had perhaps more peace and silence to engage in this kind of work. Describing all species in detail used to be the only way to recognize them and transmit their use, but also to avoid irritations or even poisoning. Apart from hand-painted herbariums, there are photographic collections in manuals and dictionaries, which nevertheless are not always enough if you want to go and collect wild herbs.
Even artists have contributed in recent times to projects which were meant to give space and voice to Nature. I particularly remember Herman De Vries, who exposed in the last edition of Biennale di Venezia in the Dutch pavilion. His work was like a big herbarium: glass-protected sample of leaves belonging to different species which were collected in Venice lagoon, where they can still spontaneously grow and reproduce themselves just like five centuries ago. This stubborn and original Artist seems almost a “hippy” who has remained untouched until the present time. He showed his need to live in true symbiosis with natural elements. It seemed to me that he wanted to redeliver us everything that can be collected in Nature, in his own personal order. At the vernissage I could see him and listen to his words, when he was officially introduced and acknowledged. He read a brief poem he had written himself – a simple way to thank, without formal preambles. His simplicity overwhelmed any artifice. Nature was exposed to participate to an individual’s unique vision and perhaps also to be remembered, in its fragile impermanence, through a work which becomes a catalogue for the future. I could tell you about many artists who worked in this direction, but for the moment I will only mention one name: J. Beuys.
Today I only wanted to tell you about plants – wild and edible plants – which are ready to be collected in springtime. They are around, available, fresh and free – you just need to go out, walk and search for them. You will surely find them!
Today I felt attracted to nettles. Their new little leaves and their tender tops show themselves only at this time of the year, because afterwards the plant grows and develops different characteristics. So I went to a place where they grow – let us say – in bounds, a distant place from roads and polluting sources. A beautiful, silent and peaceful place, where the sun warms me up in the early morning. A secret, hidden place – the right place to go and collect wild herbs.
You might wonder how you can avoid being stung, irritated or, even worst, giving up your search and changing plans. Nettles sting, they surely do! We all learnt it, sooner or later, when we were children and touched them by mistake when we were distracted playing or when we went to… no need to tell you what. Well, I must tell you that my Mom – I still don’t know how – collects them with her bare hands. Yes, that’s right: she takes the little stem with her thumb and index finger under the two small leaves on top of the plant and… zack! One single pull and it’s done. I tried to collect them wearing gloves but I had to abandon my creative pull, even though I used two pairs of gloves one above the other. Bottom line: if you don’t want to be stung you have to be very much convinced that it will not happen. You might call it extreme optimism or a temporary block of touch receptors… who knows? I only know that, even though I had an expert guide and two pairs of gloves one above the other, my touch receptors remained very much in alarm and I felt a kind of local anesthesia because of so many stings, as if I had searched a beehive by mistake. This feeling remained with me until the evening and I almost became worried, were it not for the pleasure and satisfaction for a wonderful collection. All those little green leaves and the thought that I could use them to obtain an intense and brilliant green color for my culinary fancies – which exploded all at once – made me forget the inconvenience.
Emerald green, viridian, malachite, green earth, verdigris… I learnt all technical names of colors in detail by lining the natural pigments I found in my parents’ studio.
And then… light green, dark green, medium green and intermediate green – this is how a student who had not studied for the painting exam at the Accademia di Belle Arti (Venice Art Academy) answered his professor, who happened to be my Dad! After all, we all know that green is the color of genius.
Here – Brief Guidelines For Making Pasta At Home – you can find advice and more detailed explanations on how to make pasta at home, using a rolling pin or a pasta machine. The process is the same, only the type of dough and the dimension of pasta change. Fettuccine are thinner than tagliatelle – they can be 3 to 5 mm thick. I made 3 mm thick fettuccine by machine but you can also make them by hand quite quickly. Follow the link or watch this video, it’s an authentic amateur Italian video! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wu9yCdqoCMc
* If you are left with some boiled nettles, keep them aside for a “freaky” green dessert! I will soon post the recipe!!
- Fresh nettles (top parts) - about one full colander (150 g boiled and squeezed nettles)
- 300 g type 0 flour
- 2 medium sized eggs
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 bunch of fresh sage
- 1 organic lemon
- 20 g black truffle butter (that's what I used)
- Grated Parmesan at will
- Wash the nettles wearing gloves. Boil the quantity of water you need to cook them in a big pot, then pour the nettles in boiling water and cook them for 5 minutes. Drain the nettles and let them chill.
- Squeeze boiled nettles as much as possible by using a small colander, pressing them with the back of a spoon to eliminate as much water as possible.
- Whip the squeezed nettles by using an immersion blender until you obtain a dense cream.
- Pour the flour on a pastry board making a well at the center. Then whisk the eggs with salt and the nettle cream and pour the mixture in the well.
- Mix the flour to the mixture by using a fork, taking the flour little by little from the outer border of the well, then knead by hand until you obtain a compact and elastic green ball (adding some water if it is too dry or adding some flour if it is too soft).
- Let the dough rest for 30 minutes at room temperature, covering it with a damp cloth.
- Follow the link above for detailed instructions on how to roll out the dough by hand or machine. Once you have obtained your fettuccine, dust them with flour and place them outdistanced on a wooden board.
- Brown sage in truffle butter in a wide pan, then turn the heat off.
- Cook fettuccine for 4-5 minutes by pouring pasta in salted water as soon as it reaches boiling point. Drain and briefly stir-fry fettuccine in the pan with sage, adding the grated lemon peel.
- Serve with fresh grated Parmesan.