Agretti: Spring Magic
Agretti is one of the most unique vegetables you can find in the spring time in Italy. Known as Barba di Frate (Friar’s beard), it’s a collection of beautiful thin emerald green strands, which feel fresh, slightly bitter (agro is Italian for sour), have a lovely mineral saltiness, and if cooked correctly (i.e. not for long) a perfect bite. They are often compared to samphire, they are in fact much more delicate both in feel and in taste, and can be enjoyed as a contorno (side dish), in a salad, but also mixed in a main course (in a pasta dish, or a frittata). Perhaps it is best described as a type of spinach for it’s versatility.
Agretti’s very short season (April & May usually), particular taste and their inherent fun, makes a it vegetable in very high demand and one which is still virtually unknown outside of Italy. They are also very rich in minerals (potassium, magnesium, iron and calcium) and in vitamins A,B & C (though unless you eat them raw, most of the vitamin C is lost). Because they are full of fibre, water and extremely low in fat, they are often recommended by nutritionists: they are give a sense of satiety and are diuretic.
The plant from which agretti derives (Salsola Soda) was used for a very long time to make soda ash, one of the compounds of glass and soap making (the leaves were burned, then the ash mixed with water to create an alkali solution, which eventually became soda ash by boiling it). The best glass blowers in Murano would know where to get the purest soda ash, and would guard the identity of their suppliers. The discovery of synthetic processes to make soda in the 19th made its use redundant to industry, and agretti was left as a low level foodstuff. Fast-forward to now, when it is an extremely desirable and quite difficult to find vegetable, with an incredible taste, great looks and an international fanbase which clamours for it.
There are 3 main things to keep in mind when preparing agretti: cleaning them very well; cutting off all the root and cooking them for a short time (no more than 5 minutes). The cleaning in particular is very important, otherwise they retain earth and grit and make the eating experience not very pleasant. Soak them in cold water for a short while, then run each bunch under cold water. You can cook them in boiling water or steam them, or even eat them raw. In Italy they are primarily used to accompany white meats, and dressed in olive oil, salt and lemon. If you are not eating them immediately after cooking, soak them in cold water, so they retain their lovely colour. Here you can find our recipe for Spaghetti con gli Agretti, which is one of our favourite spring dishes.