As a professional traveler, I’m very particular about souvenirs. What I’d most love to bring home with me are the incredible native fruits and vegetables found in my favorite locales.
Since becoming executive director of Whole Journeys, Whole Foods Market’s new travel company, my latest adventures were built around these regional finds and local food cultures. Check out some of the exotic produce we discovered on recent trips to Turkey and Italy.
In April of this year, I was in Izmir, a Turkish province on the Aegean Sea where local villages continue food traditions dating back to ancient civilizations. We participated in the village of Alaçati’s Festival of the Wild Greens. There are more than 86 wild varieties used for cooking in the Aegean Region of Turkey! Of course, native Turkish figs are also a major highlight from this region.
- Köremen (wild garlic): Often found growing under trees, köremen is sold at weekly Aegean vegetable markets.
- Arapsaçı (wild fennel): Its strong flavor pairs well with lamb, black-eyed peas, or served on its own cooked in good, local olive oil. It is widely used in the Aegean region, especially by those who came from Crete.
- Isırgan (stinging nettles): This green has grown popular since being touted as a detox agent that’s rich in minerals. It’s great steamed and served with olive oil or lemon. Stinging nettles’ benefits are also recommended as an herbal tea for post-menopausal women.
- İncir (fig): The Latin name for figs is related to the Carian region of Turkey, where the fruit is native. In ancient times, it was regarded as a fertility symbol and was given as an honorable gift to champion athletes at the early Olympic Games. A traditional dish made with figs and the berries of a wildly grown bush called çitlenbik is still served during religious festivals. Shepherds also use the juice from unripe figs as a yeast to make Teleme cheese. Today, Turkish culture still turns to figs for their health benefits since they’re high in antioxidants and believed to be good for digestion. The fruit’s lore of increasing fertility is also being studied by scientists using fig seeds resting in olive oil to improve sperm quality.
Italy is known for its hyper-local, traditional foods, including fresh and dried fruits, cheese and dairy products, herbs, mushroom varieties, olives, beans — the list goes on! Whether I was cycling through Tuscany or hiking in the Dolomites, every local ingredient comes with stories and traditions, so here are a few of my favorites.
- Forgotten Fruit: There are ancient varieties of wild fruit that are still found in some areas of Italy, including pomegranates, vulpine pears, rose apples, jujubes (also known as red dates or Chinese dates), quince apples, sorb apples, cornelian cherries, and unusual types of berries, as well as medlars, which are used in desserts, jelly, and wine. Ripe medlars have a taste and texture similar to apple sauce.
- Zolfino Beans: You’ll often hear locals talking about the "zolfino" bean (one of Slow Food’s "threatened" foods), found in Tuscany. It grows in the Pratomagno area in the hills and on the mountainous slopes surrounding the Sette Ponti (Seven Bridges) Road, an ancient route to Rome. The bean can also be found sprouting along old-time villas and near Romanesque churches. Called "zolfino" because of its pale yellow hue reminiscent of sulfur, this bean is related to the Toscanelli variety but has fine, thin skin that melts in your mouth. It produces a dense, creamy paste ideal for cooking typical Tuscan dishes.
- Sorana Beans: These are tasty and easy to digest, and lend themselves to versatile cooking methods. The beans are grown in the hills of Pescia (Pistoia), where farmers have passed down heirloom seeds for generations.
- Saffron: Saffron was first introduced to Italy by a Dominican monk from Inquisition-era Spain. While most saffron cultivation in Italy happens in San Gavino Monreale, Sardinia (following strict production standards), it is also grown in Abruzzo and some areas of Tuscany. Italian varieties are bright red in color, with a very intense aroma and flavor.
These are just a taste, if you will, of the world of food outside our borders. One of the greatest joys of traveling is experiencing ancient and contemporary cultures through these native ingredients, so always remember to pack your appetite.
– Kathy Dragon, Executive Director of Whole Journeys