Friday, 11 March 2016

Old Waldensians and 'Afternoon Tea'

(Do not pick or use the plants below without first taking expert advice on their correct identification and safe preparation)
The Old Waldensians introduced in their four valleys, including Val Pellice and Angrona - and continue to practice today - the English custom of taking afternoon tea.

This reflects the historically strong cultural links between England and these Protestant valleys in Piedmont since the 17th century. The habit is extremely uncommon in all other areas of Italy. The poor Waldensians could not use imported colonial Indian tea as the English still do. So the old Waldensian villagers would have opted for a free foraged substitute, such as ‘Veronica Allioni’. This tea, more recently called 'Occitan Tea' became, even recently among the entire Occitan/Provençal community living in the Western Italian Alps, one of the distinctive signs of local identity. To make this tea, the Waldensians used of the aerial parts of 'Veronica', a variety of Speedwell local to this alpine area. Veronica, one of the most beautiful of small Piedmontese alpine flowers was first identified by Dominique Villars, Piedmontese botanist of the 18th century and illustrated in Flora Pedemontana (1785). It was medicinally used for expectorants (to treat coughs).

Piedmontese 'Veronica' - used for tea in Waldensian Valleys
Par Stéphane TASSON — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Among other foraged foods were: 
Tansy ('tanaceto' in Italian). It is called ‘Arquebus wort’ in Piemontese. This was used by the Waldensians as a seasoning ingredient in omelettes, soups, and for a home-made liqueur called arquebuse. Tansy has a long history of folk use in Britain, especially in omelettes consumed during the fish-based diet of Lent. As we know, Waldensians, even in the poorest villages, have maintained, for many centuries, intense cultural ties to Britain, due to the historical and theological proximity between the Protestant/Anglican and Waldensian faiths. Hence, their use of Tansy may be 'cross-cultural'.

The Northern Alpine cuisine included the very common consumption of the young shoots of the Common Hop (Humulus lupulus) and Meadow Salsify (Tragopogon pratensis) which can be considered a cultural marker of wider Piedmontese cuisine - as reported nearly one century ago by Giovanni Mattirolo in his review of the wild plants of Piedmont. It appears that the practice of gathering and consuming the leaves/young shoots of Lamb’s Lettuce (Valerianella locusta), parts of the Rampion (Phyteuma), Bistort (Persicaria bistorta) and Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus) continued up to the quite recent past.

The latter three represent an important part of the slowly disappearing North Italian Alpine culinary tradition. Bistort was used for puddings in Lent in England, and for soups in Italy. In Italy, the young shoots of Goat’s Beard were eaten, usually boiled briefly in herb-infused water and then cooked with eggs and cheese.  They can slightly inedible if not picked at the right time.

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