Agretti is a little-known Italian delicacy
In the best spy thrillers, rather than turn over a secret paper, the spy eats the secret. In 16th century Italy, the shrewd Italians literally ate the secret to one of the area’s most beautiful industries, the famous Venetian glassworks.
To make crystal-clear glass, the Venetians used a plant that grows in salty soil, often along marshes and coastal areas. This plant was commonly eaten boiled, and tossed with olive oil and lemon juice. This plant not only tolerated the salty soil, but was the source of the glassworks’ secret ingredient, soda ash. So the Italians were literally eating their trade secret.
The plant, Salsola soda, or Agretti, is also known as Barba di Frate, Salsola Soda and Roscano. This Mediterranean annual sports long, green foliage that looks like very thin green onions. Even though agretti is very popular in Italy, it is virtually unknown in the United States. And that is a shame, because it is one of the best of the so-called bitter greens. It has a bit of the metallic sharpness of spinach, yet it’s more pleasingly bitter or sharp.
In traditional Italian cuisine, agretti is cooked by picking the plants whole, boiling lightly, and tossing with olive oil and lemon juice and perhaps some capers. You can also add the young leaves and stems into salads and stir-fries. Agretti's tart brininess makes it a natural for use in sushi. It is a good source of calcium, iron and vitamin A.
Agretti is a quick-growing vegetable, ready to pick just 50 days after planting. The bushy plants get quite big, often two feet tall and 18 inches wide. Their thin foliage is quite attractive, and can readily do double duty as an ornamental in edible landscaping.
Seeds germinate best in cool soil. Unfortunately, agretti seed has a poor germination rate. As few as 30 percent of the seeds will germinate, so it is best to sow the seed thickly and then thin out any extra plants. Agretti seed has a very short viability, so plant the seeds right after you get them. Plant agretti in early spring, just as the soil warms up. Cover the fine seed with no more than a half-inch of soil. Sow the seeds four to six inches apart, and later thin to one plant every 12 inches in the row. After seven to 10 days, your agretti seed will sprout. It is a great plant to grow in cooler areas, or partially shaded spots.
If you can't find agretti seed locally, it is available from specialty dealers such as Nichols Garden Nursery (www.nicholsgardennursery.com), Baker Creek Seeds (www.rareseeds.com), or by mail at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, 2278 Baker Creek Road, Mansfield, MO 65704, phone: 417-924-8917.
Plant agretti and be first to tout this Italian delicacy. Pick it fresh and serve it hot, and you may find that any doubters will literally eat their words.