One of the greatest joys of a visit to the farmer’s market has to be discovering produce you’ve never encountered before. This is true in one’s own city, or any other; but the farther you stray afield, of course, the more likely you are to unearth something new.
It was in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori that I first spotted a vegetable I’d never seen in its natural form—clusters of a slender, stringy green that looked almost, but not quite, but chives. These, I was told, were agretti
, which I had seen on Bay Area menus but never in the marketplace. Also called “monk’s beard,” the cultivated plant is native to Lazio, where it was once used as a supply of soda ash in the manufacture of soap, glass, and other products. While no longer farmed for that purpose, however, agretti still grows in abundance during the spring and early summer—and in Rome, it was in ready supply.
Just as it appears, agretti tastes like a cross between an herb and a green vegetable; when fresh, it has the freshness and crunch of a spinach, the grassy undertones of chives, and a slightly salty taste all its own. With such a delicate, bright flavor, it is generally served with a minimum of preparation: with a drizzle of olive oil in salads, or boiled as a tender side dish. Over in the United States, chefs have ideas of their own: Zuni Café
in San Francisco has served the agretti quickly griddled alongside halibut, or grilled on a fritto misto
platter; at nearby Maverick
, sautéed agretti appears as a hint of green in a morel and trumpet mushroom lasagna. And at Los Angeles's Campanile
, sprigs of agretti have been served atop a starter of raw albacore, and as a mild base for monkfish liver.
These restaurants aside, agretti remains a little-known and little-used ingredient in the United States. Across the ocean, however, agretti appears each March in every market in Rome—where it heralds the coming of spring just as surely as the sun.