In a town renowned for its pricey truffles Carlo Cleri hunts for a different prize.
Carlo Cleri is a man out of place. A resident of Acqualagna, a city in central Italy coveted by gourmands the world-over for its pricey truffles, Cleri’s passion is cooking weeds. While others scramble to find the $300-per-ounce fungi, Cleri combs the same countryside hunting and collecting plants most people simply step on.
His explanation for going against the grain is simple: “It’s my passion!”
This fascination with regional foods came about not because he, “like[s] big restaurants or particular products like truffles, but because I really feel this culture in me.”
Cleri is an herbalist, an expert on local herbs and culinary traditions. He’s an advocate of the Italian-founded Slow Food movement, which promotes local cuisines and “Good, Clean, and Fair food.” A part-time writer for its prestigious food guidebooks, he started a blog of his own to share his knowledge of traditional cooking in Le Marche, the region in central Italy east of Tuscany that remains his home. He fears the loss of the knowledge and traditions in his homeland.
And food is much more than mere sustenance to him. It’s an obsession – which is obvious after hours of animated discussion about herbs, breads, and beers on his small apartment balcony in Acqualagna.
Reaching forward to pour a light craft beer, deep scars are visible along his right forearm. They’re a permanent reminder of the injury that ended his firefighting career in 2002. Though he still works for the “vigili del fuoco,” the fire department, he now spends his time scheduling its training courses. After the accident, what had been only an interest in Slow Food developed into a passion. He began contributing to the guidebook, and teaching classes on beers.
His devotion to the movement intensified as the years passed. Now he is the coordinator of the Marche section for the Slow Food beer guide, and continues to lead courses as a docente – master teacher. Cleri is also pursuing a master’s degree in Enogastronomia, the study of food and wine, at the world’s only Slow Food college – the Università degli Studi de Scienze Gastronomiche in Bra, northern Italy.
Though most of his time recently is spent working on his degree, Cleri still makes time to go foraging for the same plants his mother would use. One of his favorite hunting fields is along the steep and rocky sides of the Furlo Gorge, a deep, wide and twisting crevice carved into mountains just north of Acqualagna by the Candigliano River.
Unconcerned with the cars whipping down the cliff-edged road just feet away, Cleri takes only a few steps before singling out plants. What seemed to be an unremarkable sapling is revealed to be a fig tree.
“See? Is full of fruit,” he explains, tenderly cupping the slender trunk and readjusting the broad leaves that block the unripe figs from view. “We must come back in September, when it is ready to be eaten.”
Even on this narrow stretch of road the variety of rocks and soils yields a multitude of species. He walks no more than twenty feet before pointing out two other types of fig trees, distinguishable only by a slight change in the leaves’ color.
Though Cleri’s particular culinary expertise is now unusual, his familiarity with local plants used to be commonplace. “It’s a big culture that’s disappearing,” he says, losing some of the cheerful tone he’s had throughout the day.
And the loss is not just limited to indigenous herbs.
“When I was a child I was present to the killing of a pig, but now, no one have a pig, no one kill it… was traditional. Different moment, different place.”
Saddened by the loss of customs that shaped his childhood, he started his blog, “Osteria Marchigiana,” as a preservation effort.
“So I think, okay, it’s time that someone write, this is the idea… to tell other people about these traditions,” he said.
And it has worked.
“Many people from Slow Food here in this region add me through Facebook,” he said. “Not just Slow Food, but also people who are passionate in the same things, passionate in food, in tradition.”
Spotting another inconspicuous treasure ahead, he strolls on.
Meandering along the road through the gorge, Cleri occasionally pauses to inspect a tree or pluck a leaf for a delicate tasting. Standing well over six feet, he manages to hold his own against the overwhelming physical presence of the gorge’s near-vertical stone walls. The petite woven basket dwarfed in his hand is such a contrast it almost mandates a double take from passers-by.
“Okay,” he starts, resting his basket on a low rock wall, “This was a vegetable, is possible to use with scrambled eggs, for example. Its local name is vitalba.”
A dimpled grin grows on his face as he lets out a chuckle that’s both apologetic and pleased. “You can only use the tops, but someone has already arrived here to cut it.” The absence of a few teardrop-shaped leaves can hardly seem to matter, but to Cleri, it’s proof that he’s not alone. He jokes that it would only be “old people” like him who would pick them, but his pleased smile lingers.
Unfortunately, it’s not only a decrease in people’s knowledge that affects his foraging; it’s also an increase in temperature. Cleri mentions that Italy is one of the countries that has seen the greatest change in climate – a rise of 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Deciding that he wants to gather fennel, he announces the need to change locations, “fennel needs more humidity, a lower altitude.”
Climbing back into his dusky green Volkswagen, he situates his basket safely in the backseat. Nimbly maneuvering the hairpin turns leading to his destination, he crosses the subdued countryside until reaching a hill covered with the crunchy herb. Although fennel is not the only thing this hill is covered with.
“Snails,” Cleri laughs. The plants are unpickable.
“They are attracted to the moisture of the fennel, so we cannot use,” he says. “Though maybe after, the snails can be eaten – if they eat this food they’ll be very tasty when they grow up!”
Taking this as a sign to end the day’s search, he gathers up his basket and heads home – to make bread, drink beer, and write about the herbs of his childhood in a town known for its truffles.