It is spring in Piedmont and the Sambuco trees are blossoming. Sambuco is the Italian common name for the European Black Elderberry, identified by its scientific name as Sambucus Nigra L. .The Sambuco tree-bush, produces beautiful tiny white blossoms whose sweet fragrance is swept by fresh breezes throughout the hills of the Monferrato countryside of Piedmont during the month of May. The Piedmontese kitchen boasts a wonderful springtime floral delicacy: preparing the fresh Sambuco blossoms for a pancake-like dessert called Frittelle di Fiore di Sambuco—enjoyed in Italy already since the medieval ages.
The Sambuco blossoms are harvested from a bush-tree, which can grow quite tall, up to thirty feet in height. Both the Sambuco's blossoms and berries can be consumed. However, the berries cannot be eaten raw; the berries must be cooked. Berries are made into syrup, juice, marmelade, compote, wine and liquor—July is the time to harvest and cook the berries. The spring blossoms, however, since they are so delicate, are a special treat when prepared to eat or drink.
To have a Sambuco tree in one's orto (garden) is a Piedmontese Italian tradition. However, many people prefer to venture out into the countryside in search of a wild Sambuco tree where they can harvest blossoms and berries. Sambucos found along peaceful country lanes and in the hills and forests of Piedmont. During the month of May it is quite common to see people stop their car and get out to pick some blossoms to take home to prepare Frittelle, but also to make the golden blossom syrup or sparkling wine. These are local delicacies, where recipes and method are handed down from mother to daughter. A local trattoria or osteria may offer fried blossoms on their menus. However, most people here in the Monferrato region of Piedmont where I live, take the blossoms home and prepare them as a part of their meal or make syrup. The syrup is mostly made at home, and it is very difficult to buy in the stores. The Piemontese have a strong tradition for making 'special things' at home. Piedmont, like many other regions of Italy, wants to protect its local food and beverage cultures and this goes hand in hand with preserving the nature surrounding their communities where some uncommon botanicals may thrive and are harvested for local specialties.
The Piedmontese have a tradition for fried foods called 'Frittata', or as one would say in Piemontèis dialect 'Frità'. A mixed variety of vegetables, fruits, flower blossoms, assorted meats and fish are coated in dough and then fried in olive oil. They are all placed on a large plate—a Frittata Misto—and brought to the meal table, accompanied with light varieties of white or red wine such as Cortese or Barbera or Dolcetto. It is a Piemontese pasticcio of sweet, salty and sour flavors. However, the Piemontese kitchen boasts a delicious Fritto Dolci (fried sweets), of which the Frittelle di Fiore di Sambuco is but one of several specialties. And depending on how the blossoms are prepared for fying, they could be eaten either as appetizers, as second course or as a dessert. In the springtime the Piedmontese like to prepare a variety of flower blossoms as Fritto Dolci such as Acacia, Sambuco and Zucchini; the blossoms are considered healthy to eat. Frittelle containing blossoms are basically prepared in two different ways: sweet and non-sweet. The appetizer version contains a mixture of salt, black pepper, nutmeg or other spices and wine or grappa. The sweet dessert version contains a blend of sugar, nutmeg and grappa.
If one craves to eat the sweet Sambuco blossom Frittelle, one usually has to go out on a collecting trip—blossoms are not found in the local supermarket!
The cooking adventure began on a quite warm sunny May early afternoon. I was walking up into the hills and forest of Ponzano Monferrato where the Sambuco trees are located. I never forget to carry a bag and a camera when I go trekking in the hills, as I always find something of interest—not just something botanical—but watching birds and wildlife, and especially surveying the tracks of our local Val Cerrina cinghiale (wild boar). Eventually I approach a cluster of Sambuco trees-bushes growing on a steep hillside and extending down into a ravine. It is very quiet—so pristine.
As I approach the Sambuco tree, its majestic green and white beauty greets me with a delicious sweet fragrance with a hint of citrus. The tree is an old one and is quite tall and broad and its perfume is very dominant. One should always respect the tree and only cut of those blossoms that will be needed. The large broad flat blossom clusters from the Sambuco tree are always cut off with a scissors and placed gently into a plastic bag. A sunny early afternoon is the best time to harvest the blossoms, as this guarantees the fresh fragrance and unique flavor for the Frittelle.
Once I am in the kitchen I eagerly start to clean the blossoms and mix up the batter in which the blossoms will be dipped. The kitchen is filled with the smell of the Sambuco blossoms. The scent of the blossoms, the sprinkling of nutmeg and the shot of Grappa Moscato that I pour into the batter, arouses the appetite. And I know that the first bite of the Frittelle will be a cherished moment of springtime never to be forgotten.
How to Make Piemontese Italian Sambuco Blossom Dessert
12 to 14 Sambuco blossom clusters. Since the blossoms are rather fragile, it is best if they are not rinsed with water, otherwise they will all fall off! Rather gently shake them a bit to remove any dirt or small insects. Place the blossoms on a clean plate.
To make the dough: 1 cup whole milk, 150 grams flour, 1 envelope of baking powder, 125 grams sugar, a sprinkling of nutmeg, pinch of salt, 2 medium-sized eggs and powder sugar for dusting. I recommend not to use vanilla, as it masks the flavor of the blossoms; some baking powders however do contain vanilla. Mix the batter well and then add one bicchierino (shot glass or 4 tablespoons) of Grappa. I highly recommend the Grappa Moscato because its soft sweet aftertaste compliments the flavor of the Sambuco blossoms. The blossoms are best when fried in olive oil, or one can use clarified butter or butter; other oils are not recommended as they will ruin the delicate blossom flavor.
Handle the blossoms by the long main stem and dip gently into the batter and then transfer the blossoms over to the frying pan. Once in the pan, cut off the main stem and smaller lesser stems. The big stems should not be eaten, as they are toxic; although the very small stems attached to the blossoms themselves are safe to eat. An alternative way to prepare the Frittelle is to mix the blossoms directly into the batter as you would with pancakes in general. To do this then, very gently take off the blossoms—the yellow pollen is quite nice too—with the fingers and drop them into the batter. Fold the blossoms gently into the batter. Also the amount of milk must be decreased. Do not decrease the amount of Grappa. Dust the finished pancakes with powder sugar. The recipe serves four persons. The sweet Frittelle are best accompanied by a glass of Piedmontese Cortese, a very light dry white wine. One may also choose to drink a cup of coffee.
To make the Fritelle di Fiore di Sambuco as an appetizer, the sugar and powder sugar are not used. Instead use salt and black pepper along with the nutmeg and Grappa Moscato—the appropriate flavor for the appetizer will be realized.
The Frittelle can be eaten warm or room temperature. However, do not reheat the Fritelle in the microwave, as they will become hard. They are best eaten on the day the blossoms were harvested and cooked.
Eating the Frittelle di Fiore di Sambuco is not only a wonderful regional Italian eating experience to be enjoyed with family and friends, but it is healthy. The Sambuco, i.e. the Black Elderberry, grows all over Europe, ranging from Scandinavia into central Europe. It is cultivated on a large-scale in Austria and Denmark for both its blossoms and berries which are utilized for medicinal and health products in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. Moreover, it has a high vitamin A and C content, has cardiovascular benefits, contains antiviral agents, helps reduce fever, fights the flu, and is good for relieving stress. Also in Austria, Denmark and Germany the blossoms are eaten as a fried dessert, as well as making syrup from the blossoms.
Many food festivals abound in Piedmont during the months of May and June 2009 that feature the Piedmontese fried food specialties.
- May 31 Sagra delle Frittelle Mombaldone (Asti)
- May 30 – June 1. Sagra del Fritto Misto. Portacomaro (Asti)
- June 12 -14. Sagra del Fritto Misto. Callianetto (Asti)
- June 20 – 21 Sagra delle Cucine Monferrine Moncalvo (Asti).
- June 27 – 28. Sagra del Fritto Misto alla Piemontese.
Springtime in Piedmont just would not be the same without tasting the sweet Sambuco blossoms. The lovely sweetness of the Sambuco blossoms are a gift from nature that the local Piedmontese culture in which I live has made me appreciate and cherish. Seeing people of all ages harvesting the blossoms to take home to cook is for me an emotional moment—it is an authentic Italian cultural practice in harmony with nature—it shows the love, respect and the desire the people have for the local botanicals. The very first time I ate the Frittelle di Fiore di Sambuco, I was in love with them. From that day forward, every spring I walk up into the hills and harvest blossoms, bringing them home to prepare them as a sweet dessert and as a delicious syrup to be served with sparkling mineral water. Harvesting from the undisturbed nature in one's local area is a unique experience. It is a simple old-fashioned way of happy eating.
by Karin Susan Fester
copyright © 2009 Karin Susan Fester / Life in Italy LLC
Karin Susan Fester Ponzano Monferrato 15020 (AL) Italy Tel. 00393342465749