Agretti are a strange delight.
Being the edible leaves of the Salsola Soda plant, in Tuscany – and Italy generally – agretti are also known as “barba di frate” (literally, friar’s beard), whilst other names are “riscolo” and “barba del Negus”.
In English, aliases include barilla plant (coming from the Spanish word for saltworts), opposite-leaved saltwort and opposite leaf Russian thistle. The names might not roll off the tongue but the flavour of this green delight certainly does!
Agretti look like verdant spaghetti but taste a little spinach-like, with a slightly tart, grassier flavour. Their high potassium content means they are great for combatting cholesterol whilst their bright colour and texture make them a fun treat.
We have an international friend who joins our hands-on cooking classes each year. She insists that she will only travel to Tuscany during the 6-week “agretti” season in the spring, such is her passion for this unusual vegetable. When she first saw agretti at a local growers market in Florence, the stall holder refused to sell her these exclusive greens until she could repeat the basic way of cooking them.
Whilst this may sound strange, given that the agretti season is so short and that the plant is immensely difficulty to cultivate, not to mention the Italian passion for good food… it makes sense to us!
Indeed, only around 30-40% of seeds germinate. The picky plant is also rather temperamental about its soil and weather conditions, meaning it is quite difficult to grow at home.
Whilst the barilla plant has found newfound fame amongst foodies of late, its history actually dates back some centuries and has a surprising twist.
Salsola Soda was once grown to be burnt so that the 30% soda ash it contains could be extracted. This substance was vital to early glassmaking, hence the plant was widely grown throughout the Venetian lagoon, to be used in Murano and Venetian cristallo. Spain and Scotland were also big producers, with the soda ash – a.k.a sodium carbonate – also used in soap and more.
Today, the plant has all but been retired from its industrial duties, leaving agretti to be a source of joy not only at the table but also as a sure sign that spring – and the warm weather it brings – is upon us!
Agretti are grown in little shrubs. Due to the sodium that the salsola soda draws from the earth in which it is grown, the plant is often cultivated alongside tomatoes and other plants that aren’t fond of saline terrain.
Once harvested, the “friar’s beard” is sold in handful-sized bundles, carefully swaddled in paper, their reddish roots still attached, with a little free dirt usually included amongst them.
After chopping off the roots and giving the green strands a good wash, they can be cooked on their own, with pasta or served with eggs.
As a simple side, bring a pot of salted water to a rolling boil then cook for 7 minutes (not a second longer, our friend’s local grocer warns!). Then, drain and serve with a squeeze of lemon juice, which cuts the slightly tart taste (the Italian word for sour is ‘agro’ – hence the name…) and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. Serving agretti cooked this way to accompany meat or even egg dishes is simply delicious.
Instead of drizzling with lemon, you can cook the agretti for 6 minutes in salted water then add to a pan in which you have cooked chopped onion (and, why not, some pancetta). Toss, check to see if you want to add any salt/pepper then serve with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil if needed.
You can also add a handful of agretti in with your spaghetti (6-7 minutes from when the pasta will be al dente). To avoid the agretti remaining clumped up as they cook, try to separate the strands a bit rather than throwing in the whole bundle (or else, use some tongs to spread the strands throughout the pasta in the pot or once cooked). After straining, you can add the green and golden strands to a pot in which you have cooked some diced onion and pancetta. Check for salt, add pepper to taste. Toss everything together then, if needed, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and serve.
Adding in a bundle of agretti to the pasta is a great way to add a touch of green to carbonara. Make the traditional carbonara recipe with spaghetti (throwing in a handful of agretti) plus eggs, pancetta (bacon can substitute if you cannot find pancetta, just don’t tell anyone from Rome, where this recipe hails from), salt and pepper plus finely-grated aged pecorino (and/or parmesan – by which we mean parmigiano reggiano) cheese.
Agretti can also be added to spaghetti with a simple tomato sauce. Again, cook onion in a pan. Once nice and softened (but not browned), add in some chopped tomatoes. Allow the tomatoes to cook. Add salt and pepper to taste then throw in the cooked spaghetti/agretti and coat. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and serve. You now have the colours of Italy on your plate!
For a divine spring risotto with an agretti twist, cook some diced onion until soft. Then add in peas, 1-inch slices of asparagus, zucchini and some chopped-up agretti. Once the veggies have softened, throw in some carnaroli (or other risotto rice). Pour in a glass of white wine and allow to cook off before adding ladles of warm vegetable broth until the rice is al dente. Finish off with some grated parmesan cheese, salt and pepper to taste. If you like, serve with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Whilst not traditional, you can also throw in some cooked agretti (around 5 minutes in boiling water) into a non-stick pan, cover with a mixture of whisked eggs, grated cheese, salt and pepper to make a frittata.
Once you try this verdant delight for yourself, we’re sure you’ll be scheduling your trips to Tuscany around agretti season too!