Agretti - A Taste of Spring in Italy

The springtime markets in Italy are full of wonderful vegetables - asparagus, little purple artichokes, and fava beans, to name a few. I have a strong memory of my first taste of fresh spring fava beans, eaten raw with a little bit of pecorino as I sat on a bench outside a neighborhood market in Rome. Heaven! Big piles of spring artichokes look like art to me, and taste amazing when used as the filling for a light-as-air lasagna. And asparagus in a delicate pasta primavera? Is there a better way to celebrate spring vegetables?

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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? 

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There are two basic cooking methods. The most simple is to drop the cleaned agretti briefly into boiling water until crisp tender, and then drain and sprinkle with olive oil and lemon. It can also be sautéed with olive oil and garlic (and perhaps pancetta or anchiovies) and topped with a squeeze of lemon juice. The lemon juice is key to bringing balance to the slightly sharp, spinach taste and bringing out the bright, fresh-as-spring taste of the agretti.

I had seen agretti in the markets on previous trips to Italy, but never knew exactly what they were or how to cook them. After a discussion with friends who recently moved to Lucca and were experimenting with cooking local produce, I bought my first bunch of agretti in one of Italy’s spring markets. After trimming the roots and washing it well (it can be pretty sandy), I sautéed the agretti for about 10 minutes in olive oil along with 2 cloves of garlic. A little salt (it doesn’t need much), several grinds of black pepper, and a generous squeeze of lemon juice later and it was just right as a side dish to a lemony chicken fillet and some rice.

I can’t wait to try it in a frittata next!

-post by JMB

Sautéed agretti alongside pan-sautéed lemon chicken and rice.

Sautéed agretti alongside pan-sautéed lemon chicken and rice.

Primavera

Statue of the goddess Spring, Palazzo Pfanner

Statue of the goddess Spring, Palazzo Pfanner

If I were a musician, I would compose a song about primavera  (spring) in Italy. I'd sing about the colors, the light, the scent of rain, the feel of the sun on my face and about a gentle season that brings both rain and warmth to nurture landscape and people. But I'm not a musician, and I can assure you that singing is not one of my talents, so I'll just try to describe a Lucchese spring with written words and pictures.

In the past couple of weeks I've watched trees sprout new growth and move into full leaf, lavender flower, and the ginestra (which we call Spanish Broom back home) bloom. Wild buttercups have bloomed along Lucca's wall and figs have appeared on trees along the Serchio river.

 

A field of wild buttercups along the wall in Lucca.

A field of wild buttercups along the wall in Lucca.

Figs growing along the river Serchio.

Figs growing along the river Serchio.

The most dramatic sign of spring here in Lucca is the appearance of the glicine (wisteria), which seems to go from dormant branch to full flower overnight. It spills over arbors, walls, terraces, and bridges. For me, wisteria will always be synonymous with spring in Italy.

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Glicine, Piazza Parigi, Lucca

White wisteria

White wisteria

First to bloom was a beautiful wall of white wisteria just outside the church of San Giovanni - the scent was delicate and sweet, just like spring itself. Next came waves of violet wisteria throughout town, less scented but every bit as pretty. 

Now, I've watched the wisteria blooms fade, replaced by the first roses, wild yellow buttercups, and pretty pots of flowers appearing on windowsills and terraces throughout Lucca. Though it's always a bit sad to see the wisteria go, I know that Lucca will continue to blossom throughout the spring and summer. I look forward to seeing the first hydrangeas in the gardens at Palazzo Pfanner, lemon trees in flower, and the jasmine on my patio bloom. It's hard to mourn the fading wisteria with all that promise ahead.                       -post by JB