Make no mistake, agretti is no weed
The green fronds of agretti were once sought across Europe to be reduced to ashes for use in making glass. These days, the verdant Italian plant is once more in demand – in a somewhat less well-cooked state – to feature on dinner plates. Cahal Milmo reports for The Independent on Sunday.
Seed supplies for the salt-tolerant succulent prized as a delicacy in Italy ran out in Britain after it featured on television; gourmets and amateur growers rushed in to partake of its delicate mineral taste. Agretti is difficult to find in shops, too, so restaurateurs and UK allotment-keepers were forced to grow their own stocks.
Otherwise known as saltwort or friar’s beard (or “land seaweed” in Japan) agretti can cause mini-stampedes in the markets of Umbria and Lazio. Then, Italians dash to get hold of bundles of fleshy, needle-shaped leaves – traditionally served with oil and lemon – in its short early-summer seasonal window. Now it is migrating north, and growing awareness of the plant is provoking a similar battle to obtain seed to cultivate on British soil.
Paolo Arrigo, director of Franchi Seeds of Italy, said: “We cannot keep up (with demand). We’ve stocked agretti seed for 15 years… but suddenly it has taken off. We’re completely sold out.
“MasterChef has mentioned it, so people are wanting to try it. But I think it’s also part of a wider trend. People are bored by eating the same supermarket tomato variety… They’re looking for things that are different and have a flavour of authenticity.”
A Mediterranean native, agretti (Latin name Salsola soda) was first cultivated as a source of soda ash, which plays a key role in glass and soap making. Manufacturers in Spain and Italy burned vast quantities of it, until a synthetic process was discovered in the 19th century. Then, agretti withered to become a niche peasant foodstuff in two Italian regions. Not now though!
Agretti, as prized as truffles
Although it is often compared to its relative, samphire, aficionados describe it as closer in taste to spinach. Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, describes it as “full of the energy of spring.”
Mr Arrigo said: “It’s a tremendous crop. Once you get it to germinate you can’t stop it. In Italy it’s as prized in the same manner as truffles and it’s catching on here. That said, others still feel differently. In the past we’ve sent seed to Australia. It gets returned with a big label saying ‘weed’.”
Full story here: Agretti the Italian vegetable chefs are fighting over
Small image 1: Agretti in the market at the Campo de’ Fiori. Small image 2: Pizza with agretti on the menu at Dry in Milan. Delizioso!
Where to ask for agretti seeds in Australia? Try The Italian Gardener.