Along with these more common vegetables, the spring markets in Italy also have bunches of what look like thick grass or chives. They are dark green with long, thin tapered leaves and are often wrapped in wet paper to keep the intact roots moist. The appearance of these in the markets is a cause for excitement in Italy. They are only around for a short time in spring and are considered a delicacy. So what are these mysterious grassy bundles?
They go by several names. In Italy they are most commonly known as agretti or barba di frate (frair’s beard). In English, saltwort. The proper Latin name is Salsola soda, a member of the Chenopodiaceae (Amaranth or Goosefoot) family, which includes spinach, beets, and chard.
Agretti grows well in salty water, which means that the Mediterranean coast is the perfect place for it to thrive. It also means that it has become a rather unwelcome and invasive species following its import to coastal California - perhaps because we Americans don’t eat it often enough! And although agretti leaves look like chives or spring onions, they are not related to onions at all and the flavor is completely different.
As an interesting historical note, agretti were originally grown to be burned to ash. The result was soda ash, used in making soap and glass. Imagine how useful this was to the Venetians - why eat a product that could be used to make beautiful Venetian glass? Today, however, there are better ways to make glass and agretti is raised as a food crop.
Agretti can be eaten raw (it’s crunchy and tangy, with a slightly bitter mineral taste). Raw, it’s a good addition to salads. It’s also healthy - high in fiber, low in calories, and a good source of vitamins (A, B, and C) and minerals (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron).
More commonly, agretti is served cooked, either as a contorni (side vegetable) or incorporated into a frittata or a pasta dish . Can you say spaghetti con agretti five times fast?