To be able to recognize herbs, distinguish the good ones from the bad and use them for alimentary or healing purposes: Eleonora Cunaccia from the Italian region of Trentino-Alto Adige has made this thousand-year old art her profession. Known as the herb gatherer, Eleonora (Noris for friends) likes to define herself as “the lady of the mountains”: following a career as a Michelin starred chef, she fell victim to the enchanting atmospheres to be experienced at 1000 m or more above sea level. About fifteen years ago, she and her brother learned how to capture the mountain spirit in a jar and launched their business, Primitivizia: she gathers herbs and he studies perfect preservation methods for the many fruits and plants of the Rendena Valley in Trentino South Tyrol, where they live.
How prompted you to start up this activity and what does it consist in?
After travelling for a decade in the mountains of the Andes and Tibet, I realized it was time to explore the mountains in my own backyard: the Dolomites were back home waiting for me. I learned the art of herbal medicine from my grandmother and now I use my hands to make a living: that’s why they look so work worn. I set out at dawn guided by the rays of the sun because they tell me where to find my herbs, fruits, roots and flowers. I feel as though I have invented a way of encapsulating nature and, each season, I am rewarded with new experiences: there is no slope, stream, glacier or underwood I haven’t yet combed. Obviously I hold a special license that obliges me to take all possible measures to safeguard nature.
What becomes of the herbs you gather?
They are partly shipped as fresh herbs and whatever is left over is processed and preserved in glass jars. The so-called “queen’s garlic”, an aromatic herb that grows spontaneously, is made into a cream for using in soups for instance, similarly to the alpine sow thistle – to be found on the borders of snowfields at an altitude of over 2000 metres - burdock and hop. Desserts include rhubarb compote or a sauce made from the common European pear (Pyrus communis L.) which has almost become a rare species.
Down through the years, you have provided your services to some great chefs: what do they normally ask you for?
Most of us underestimate the taste of herbs, we don’t really think that the odd leaf here or there in a dish can really affect the overall flavour. Professional chefs, on the other hand, are learning to use the fruits of the mountains to add complexity to their creations, to confer acidity or a hint of piquancy. Very few people know that there are as many as 28 types of different alliaceous plants in Italy and each one of them has a subtly different taste. Many seek advice, others request my products.
Eleonora, how do you personally use your herbs?
In thousands of ways: for making excellent gourmet rolls, for example, using rye bread, alpine butter, char, hop shoots and a small amount of grated juniper. To dress a hamburger I use small dandelion leaves or wild campion that tastes of peas, meadow sage flowers, an alpine cheese and a little bit of spring onion. I gather most of my herbs in the summertime; summer is when water nasturtium and water cress appear: they guarantee environmental purity. It is difficult to find alpine sow thistle. In fact Slow Food affords it protection as an endangered plant species.
Your reputation has now spread to the other side of the Atlantic.
For a couple of years now, I have been successfully exporting some of my products: cornel tree berries for example are very popular in Australia. In 2013, Oprah Winfrey stated in her blog that one of her favourite foods is the extract from mountain pine shoots and, immediately, the demand for it soared. I make it myself and it is fantastic served on vanilla ice-cream, yogurt, warm milk, ewe’s milk ricotta and smoked cheese, teamed up with seasoned pecorino cheese or for adding a balsamic note to game.