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Here I am sipping a #2 cocktail: gin, bilberry juice, kombucha, fermented honey and pear miso. My companion is drinking a fragrant new take on the Aviation with edible rose petals and lavender bitters. Between us lies a platter containing breadsticks made from survival flour, marinated Jew’s ear mushrooms, bread with wild barley dust, lake trout bottarga, persimmons, yarrow and chickweed leaves. We are at the Wood*ing Cocktail Bar, which was opened one month ago in Milan by Valeria Margherita Mosca, creator of the Wood*ing Lab.
Hers is a laboratory with no equal in the world, aimed at researching into the use of wild food for human consumption. Or, as Valeria herself puts it, the idea is to “set out from the tradition of alimurgy and push its borders to create new landscapes of edible produce”. Currently, seven people work full time at the Lab, plus the bar staff. Valeria receives invitations from all over the world – next stop: the Basque Culinary Center – to hold talks on her findings. Her manual on foraging will be published next spring, contemporarily in Italy and abroad.
Mixology + Foraging
The Wood*ing Cocktail Bar is the first cocktail bar in the world to put the accent on foraging. Ingredients such as bramble leaves and fermented root tea or kombucha find their way into its glasses. For those who are feeling more peckish, they serve “platters” like the one we tried or cheese selections from the valleys around Milan, accompanied with wild herbs, roots and fruits.
A truly unique venue and a bold enterprise. “We get plenty of criticism” explains Valeria “Some fail to understand and just get up and leave” – this is a world of aromas and flavours in an ambit of wild mixology, which adds up to a fascinating revelation.
How did you start out?
Due to a series of coincidences. My grandmother used to live in Alta Valtellina and she considered it quite normal to gather wild herbs and plants. Since I spent entire summers with her, it became a regular pastime for me as well. When I was six, I used to make maps and compile herbariums. At university I studied anthropology/cultural heritage conservation and I found it often tied up with ethnobotany and food anthropology… Then I found myself working – more by chance than by choice – in restaurant kitchens of all levels. I spent a few years at the Pomiroeu run by Giancarlo Morelli. It was a restless time of my life and I needed something solid to cling to; he en-couraged me to start my project – and I am very grateful to him. I rustled up all the experience I had acquired until then and opened the Lab.
When did the Lab project actually get off the ground?
Around 2010. I was lucky: I arrived just before foraging really took off and restaurants started to invest in research and development. So, right from the start, we were getting inquiries. In the early days, I mainly offered training and advisory services – I bring you a product and explain how to use it – which then led to a research experience, primarily thanks to our partnership with ERSAF, with whom we are working on the scientific classification of all the wild food available on the planet in terms of nutrition.
How is the classification going?
It is an endless job! It proceeds very slowly; all the chemical-nutritional analyses are financed by ourselves and take a long time. To date, we have classified over 9000 species and we have hardly begun. Our initial idea was to deal with plant species only but then decided to research freshwater molluscs, such as sinanodonta woodiana which was inadvertently carried from China together with fishing equipment: it reaches a size of 30 cm and covers river and lake bottoms to the detriment of other freshwater species.
What started out as a research project for you has now become a fashionable trend. What do you feel about that?
At first, it made me both angry and concerned. Rather selfishly, it upset me to see that our serious discussion got less visibility than the Chef of the Moment adding dandelion leaves to his dish. Now I am much more relaxed about it: we have built up a public of interested people and the chefs really want to learn by attending training sessions like our Foraging Academy which is always fully booked.
How did the cocktail bar come about?
Last year I published my first book. I decided to deal with the topic of mixology, which is still unexplored ground compared to cooking and closely bound to a set of well-structured principles. It was so successful that we thought of opening a cocktail bar in Milan. Here, each cocktail carries various messages such as cooperation with the environment and sustainability. Furthermore, our cocktails contain fermented probiotic beverages whose effects do not diminish with alcohol. We also wish to gradually extend our gourmet food offering.
Can you tell us about the most interesting foraging experiences you have recently had?
What I call foraging 2.0 is focused on invasive plant species and sets out to classify them in terms of their usefulness as food, in order to cooperate even more closely with the environment. Here in Italy, they are mainly ornamental Asian plants introduced in the eighties which have invaded our eco-systems and threatened our biodiversity. The Japanese knotweed, for instance, is creating huge amounts of damage to the ecosystem. I was thrilled to bits when I found out that it was also good to eat. Then, it warms my heart to learn from 90-year olds I have met in the mountains at an altitude of 2500 metres; they have eaten wild food every day of their lives.
Training, research, promotion, tasting. Which aspect do you care most about?
Now I am putting my greatest efforts into the Thinking Like a Forest project which aims at creating experimental fields located in abandoned areas – coastlands, agricultural or mountainous zones - where the diminishing population has greatly prejudiced the cultural, social and economic fabric. In such areas we sew wild seeds according to the principles of permaculture, which means that nature itself does practically all the work. By re-activating these areas we create new horticultural products whose impact is close to zero before putting them onto the market. In this way, we represent a local identity and reinforce its biodiversity.