/Foraging For Food In Rome

Foraging For Food In Rome

During excavation, more than 400 spontaneous plants were identified inside the Colosseum.

Rome’s origins are agricultural and, indeed, most of the area that is now occupied by the modern city was home to cultivated and spontaneous plants and livestock less than a century ago. Considering the fact that urban sprawl shows no signs of relenting, urban farming and foraging offer two viable ways for city residents to return to their roots.

Capers in the Parco degli Acquedotti.

One spontaneous plant that is absolutely ubiquitous is the caper bush. They have a particular predilection for brick walls and can be found growing on the interior surfaces of the Colosseum, on aqueduct ruins, on the Aurelian walls, and retaining walls around Rome’s hills and parks. The entire caper plant is edible: buds, berries, and even the leaves (more about that topic next week!).

Arugula grows in the Circus of Maxentius.

I used to walk by the Circus Maximus after industrial lawnmowers had been through and wonder why the whole place smelled like a peppery salad. Upon closer inspection, I realized those plants with jagged leaves and yellow flowers were arugula. Arugula is particularly abundant in the wide open spaces of the Circus of Maxentius, the Parco degli Acquedotti, and the Parco della Caffarella.

Mallow growing next to the church of San Nicola in Carcere.

Mallow, also known as malva, is a plant with scalloped leaves and purple flowers that grows close to the ground. It is so common that it may be considered an invasive weed by some. For others, it is prized for its digestive properties. It can be eaten raw or cooked and on Sunday Beppe e I Suoi Formaggi served me goat cheese with bits of dried mallow on top.

Ostia Antica.

Ostia Antica’s well-worn bath is full of grass and weeds, but as soon as you venture off the main tourist route, there is plenty of wild mint to be found. As at all archeological sites in Rome, huge pines have been planted. Their cones contain pine nuts ready for the taking by the equipped and patient traveler.

Mature olives on the Palatine Hill.

As was likely the case in the iron age, olive trees populate the slopes of the Palatine and Caelian hills. Olives can be plucked from these branches and cured using water, brine, salt, or lye treatments. If you feel sketchy picking olives on the Palatine during regular opening hours, head for the trees in front of San Gregioro across the valley.

Prickly pears in the Parco della Caffarella.

The meat of prickly pears is edible, though getting to it can be a painful process as I learned the hard way. Rome Photo Blog can tell you the whole story but let’s just say I spent the first two days of vacation a few years back tweezing spines out of my tongue and hands. Forage for prickly pears with gloves and peel the skin off to remove spines. The sweet fruit inside can be eaten as is or made into sorbet. The cactus pads are edible, too, and are used in a traditional Mexican salad.

This is how I learn lessons.

NB: It is probably illegal to forage for food in Rome’s archeological parks. That said, who’s watching? Also, don’t be an idiot like me. Use common sense when foraging and do some research before hand or you may end up with thousands of fuzzy spines in your mouth.

2017-02-17T15:24:23+00:00 November 7th, 2011|Categories: Culture, Food & Wine, Gastronomic Traditions, Rome & Lazio|15 Comments


  1. Francesca November 8, 2011 at 2:32 am - Reply

    This is a fantastic post! Thank you Katie! Next time I’m in Rome, and at the right time of the year, I will make sure I do my harvesting too…;D

  2. John November 8, 2011 at 3:51 am - Reply

    Grand post – but you totally left out the best part: An infinite supply of Sambuco/Sambucus/Elderberry plants in Parco della Caffarella.
    You can use both flowers and berries, make infusions, syrups (elderberry flower syrup is the Jeopardy answer and the correct question is “What’s the meaning of life?”), jams, pickles and more.
    Now you have to wait for next year’s harvest though, doh!

  3. Katie November 8, 2011 at 8:47 am - Reply

    @Francesca thanks! the fun thing about this post is that basically all the seasons are covered!! 🙂

    @John i have no idea what those look like! ive seen so many flowering plants and ones with little berries in the caffarella. it’s crazy how much biodiversity is out there!

  4. Mick P November 8, 2011 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    Good post, as usual, and timely given that only yesterday I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s Food programme on a similar subject (though UK-based).

    Yes, elderberry! Next season we (yes, OK, my wife, I’m just the donkey who carries the basket) will be making elderflower cordial. We used to make it all the time in England but haven’t done so since moving to Italy.

    Blackberries (le more) are also in abundance during late summer, and we have lots in the freezer to tide us through winter with apple and blackberry pies and crumbles, plus I have a litre of blackberry liqueur steeping away in the cupboard ready for Christmas – it’s worth it for the amazing colour alone.

  5. Arthur Schwartz November 8, 2011 at 12:29 pm - Reply

    Loved this post, Katie. Loved meeting you! But let’s not forget that Rome is filled with well-pruned (or not) shrubs of bay laurel. Just about every other caffe uses it to enclose their outdoor space. As a frequent visitor from NYC, I always pick enough leaves to last until my next trip.

  6. Irene November 9, 2011 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    A picture is worth a thousand words….the look on your face, Katie! I’d love to join you on your next foraging trip, thanks for a great post.

  7. The Pines of Rome November 9, 2011 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    Brilliant post! I love studying Rome from new perspectives and this is one I would never have thought of in a million years!

  8. Maureen Fant November 12, 2011 at 11:39 am - Reply

    Yo, Arturo! Don’t you ever run into trouble with the cute little DoAg beagle whose job is to sniff out leaf-smugglers? You’re certainly right that nobody around here ever needs to buy bay leaves.

    Katie, most interesting post and particularly valuable now that all our old vendors of hairy, spiky wild things are dying off or retiring. I would add figs and kaki as well as bay leaves. There is probably rosemary around, but I can’t think where. There was an article in the Times travel section many years ago by the late, great Lou Inturrisi on something like this, though possibly African plants in the Colosseum imported in animal feed, but he also talked about capers. Once you start noticing them, you see them everywhere.

  9. Maureen Fant November 12, 2011 at 11:42 am - Reply

    PS portulaca (purslane) grows spontaneously on our terrace. Make that all over our terrace. Franco picks it and makes a salad with thin-sliced green onions and balsamic vinegar.

  10. Rachelle November 12, 2011 at 10:22 pm - Reply

    Now I have a whole new reason to go back to this area of Rome and explore! Thanks, this is so interesting!

  11. […] she mentioned last week in her post Foraging For Food in Rome, the whole caper plant is edible. Indeed, capers have been used as food and medicine in the […]

  12. Nathalie (@spacedlaw) November 14, 2011 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    Not to mention cicoria and dandelion… Or berries. Or snails!

  13. Nathalie (@spacedlaw) November 14, 2011 at 3:44 pm - Reply

    Oh and elderflowers (wonderful in fritters) and berries (in jam) of course.

  14. […] Foraging for food in Rome. […]

  15. […] may be costly, but there is plenty of readily available free food all over town. Not only are there arugula, mallow, and prickly pears out there, but there are thousands of olive trees bursting with fruit, ripe for the taking. Some […]

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