Books

Here's How Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray Learned How to Forage for a Three-Course Dinner

Gray wrote about what we now call the Slow Food movement—from foraging to eating locally.

Photo Credit: Alexander Geiger/Shutterstock

Patience Gray wrote about what today we would call the Slow Food movement—from foraging to eating locally—long before it became part of the cultural mainstream and has had a lasting and profound effect on the way we view and celebrate traditional foodways and regional cuisines.

She is best known for her 1986 book Honey from a Weed, which chronicles the more than four decades she spent living in remote villages throughout the Mediterranean. In the 1960s Patience and her partner, the Belgian sculptor Norman Mommens, had spent time in Carrara, Catalonia, Apollonas on the Greek Island of Naxos and the Veneto, searching for a place to live and work. They found that place in Puglia, at the very bottom of the heel of Italy’s boot, where they moved in 1970. The farmhouse they restored, known as Spigolizzi, was just a few miles from what the Italians call FinibusTerrae,or Lands End where the Adriatic and Ionian meet. This was Patience’s home until her death in 2005.   

The following excerpt is adapted from Adam Federman’s book Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

The wilderness was no longer a metaphor—since moving to Spigolizzi, Patience had been living in it. In her letters she referred to the restorative power of wild places and lamented the fact that there was so little wilderness left. Honey from a Weed was, she now said, essentially about wilderness, “the limestone one.” Nowhere was she more at ease than in the macchia, which she described as the “cradle of every valuable herb.”

Indeed after nearly a decade of living with the macchia at her door, Patience had come to know its plant life with a degree of intimacy she’d been unable to attain in Greece or Carrara. Visitors often recalled her as a kind of spectral figure drifting through the landscape. Unlike Norman, though, she had little interest in teaching. She rarely took anyone other than her dog on her foraging trips. She was just as unlikely to invite anyone into the kitchen. And though she continued to learn from the local people—even for those who had moved out of the countryside, gathering weeds was still common—she preferred to wander alone. In autumn she picked mushrooms almost every day, particularly varieties of the species Lactarius. These included the mucchiareddi, which were often found growing beneath cistus and in local dialect was known as mucchia. She had even come across the excellent but rare Hygrophoruspoetarum, fungus of the poets, which her publisher Alan Davidson always maintained did not exist in Puglia and was a “fantasy of [her] imagination.” Patience continued to identify varieties that were new to her well into the 1990s. At times she said the autumn harvest was bountiful enough to provide a three-course dinner consisting entirely of fungi. “If it’s a bad day,” Patience wrote one November, “I fall back on weeds.”

Weeds had long been a staple of the Salentine diet as well as a reminder of the region’s enduring poverty. Abundant and easily accessible, they were gathered more out of necessity than by choice. During the Second World War, when bread was severely rationed and there was little else to eat (dried figs were the other staple), weeds were one of the few dependable foods. But after the war as the economy gradually improved and many workers left for northern Italy or Europe to find employment, the reliance on edible weeds declined. At the same time produce from supermarkets, including cultivated chicory, began to supplement and in some cases replace the traditional diet. Inevitably perhaps, much of the knowledge passed down from one generation to the next, traditionally from mothers to daughters, began to fade. By the 1970s when Patience and Norman had settled in the area, the knowledge seemed in danger of disappearing. For many this was hardly viewed as a loss: Weeds had come to symbolize privation and hunger.

Patience of course viewed them differently. Over the years she had come to believe that weeds were a source of energy—she said an afternoon’s work could be performed on a dish of weeds alone—and she and Norman ate them regularly. A typical lunch was an assortment of edible weeds boiled, drained, and then sautéed in olive oil and hot peppers and served with bread and cheese. “I think one has to eat them daily,” she told Alan Davidson. These were often supplemented with other edible wild plants, depending on the season, including wild asparagus, beets, or fennel. The herbs of the macchia, which Patience pointed out have higher concentrations of essential oils than their cultivated counterparts due to the harshness of the environment they grow in, were a ubiquitous presence in all of Patience’s cooking. At certain times of year, particularly early spring and autumn, the richness of what the macchia had to offer was staggering.

Ada Ricchiuto, a friend who met Patience and Norman in the 1970s, recalled first catching sight of Patience walking in the macchia with her basket. Ada had grown up in the nearby village of Acquarica and knew well that a certain stigma was attached to those who gathered weeds. Her husband, Mario, came from a better-off family whose father grew his own fennel, cauliflower, and chicory and looked down on those who had to scavenge for food. Thus it wasn’t that Patience taught her how to identify or cook edible weeds, she said; she taught her to value them. “Patience could have bought her vegetables but chose not to,” she said. “That was significant.”

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Adam Federman is a reporting fellow with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute covering energy and the environment. He is the author of Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray (Chelsea Green, 2017). He has written for the Nation magazine, the Guardian, Columbia Journalism Review, Gastronomica, Petits Propos Culinaires, Earth Island Journal, Adirondack Life, and other publications. He has been a Russia Fulbright fellow, a Middlebury fellow in environmental journalism, and the recipient of a Polk grant for investigative reporting. A former line cook, bread baker, and pastry chef, he lives in Vermont.