‘Eat them now or wait for another year’ sums up the agretti affair. Depending on the weather, these grass-like leaves appear in greengrocers for six weeks or so every spring. Known as saltwort or monk’s beard in English, I stumbled across some in the last week of February, a whole month earlier than usual, “because of the warmer winter in Tuscany,” my trusty fruttivendolo explained to me.
The plant was once a primary ingredient in sodium carbonate, especially in Spain where it was used to produce the compound until the early nineteenth century with the advent of industrial processes. Grown throughout Venice’s lagoon, salsola soda ash was essential to glass making on the island of Murano. In 2015, agretti became on-trend among foodies in the United Kingdom having appeared on shows like Masterchef and starred in recipes by Jamie Oliver and clean-living sisters Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley.
Not unlike chives in appearance and spinach in flavour, the long, lush, bright green leaves have a slightly sharp taste, hence the name (“agro” means “sour” in Italian), which can be tamed with a squeeze of lemon and a generous drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Easy to prepare, just steam or boil them and serve as a simple starter or side dish. In addition to the pasta recipe below, eggs are an enjoyable alliance for agretti, combatting cholesterol with their high potassium content—and tasting great.
Spaghetti with agretti
1 large bunch agretti (I picked up mine from Ortofrutta Fabbrini in my hometown of Pontassieve; ask your local greengrocer)
1 spring onion, peeled and finely chopped
4-5 tomatoes, cut in half
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Take the agretti and chop off the reddish roots—the roots are covered in soil, so make sure you wipe down the work surface before continuing.
Cook the agretti in a large pot of salted boiling water for 6 minutes or until tender. Drain, squeezing out any excess water.
Meanwhile, bring a separate large pot of water to the boil. Add salt and cook the spaghetti for the time indicated on the packet. Drain.
Sauté the spring onion, agretti and tomatoes in a generous splash of extra-virgin olive oil for 2 minutes. Turn off the heat. Grate in the lemon zest and add the freshly squeezed lemon juice. Stir into the pasta, season with pepper and serve.
The tartness of the lemon calls for a high-acid wine and we’re lucky to have a more than a few locally. Scandicci-sited San Michele a Torri’s Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG Riserva San Giovanni Novantasette is up to the task at hand with its bitter backbone, fruit and flowers. On a warm spring day, choose a Vernaccia di San Gimignano such as Montenidoli’s Tradizionale label, which macerates on the skins long enough to release an earthy elegance that holds its own with the iron-like flavour of the agretti.