10 July 2014

Ready for agretti?

It’s a vegetable of many names. When we bought it in our Umbrian village market they called it agretti, but you’ll also hear the same thing called roscano, ariscolo, riscoli, or liscari, or rospici, or barbe di frate (friar’s beards) or maybe even the inexplicable senape del monaco (monk’s mustard). At first sight we suspected it was some sort of onion or chive. The Italians soon set us straight. ‘It’s greens’ —like spinaci only better. Try some!'

So we did. The taste is slightly salty, faintly bitter, but nice; what makes it unique and addictive is the consistency: not mere boiled leaves in your mouth, but something more like fine Asian noodles—think of it as linear spinach. Besides being delicious, agretti are astoundingly virtuous: low calories, lots of iron, calcium, and other minerals, lots of vitamin B3 and C. It’s mildly diuretic, mopping up those awful triglycerides and cholesterol in your blood. Popeye could have beat the whole Red Army with a can of this.

You’ll seldom find agretti in other European countries. There isn’t even a name for it in English; it’s often referred to as ‘saltwort’, but it’s really only one of many varieties of saltworts. For years we became so accustomed to doing without agretti that we almost forgot about it. Fortunately though, you can grow your own if you have a reasonably warm climate. In Italy they get to be over two feet high. In our southwest France garden (with a climate similar to the Carolinas) they’re a little smaller, but just as good. They like a lot of water. Get the seeds from Semilandia in Italy (these worked very well for me), Franchi-Seeds of Italy (UK) or any number of online sites in the U.S.

Though they look flimsy and spindly, they don’t shrink in cooking like other greens. In fact the garden space you allot to agretti will be more productive than spinach or chard. The seeds can be a problem. Lots of gardeners complain about low germination rates, and the seeds do not keep very long. Yours might fail one year, and be brilliant the next.

So what do you do with it? Facilissimo: pull off the green bits and the most flexible parts of the stems, and throw out the rest of the stems.  Wash it off well in a colander. Boil it for a few minutes, throw on a little olive oil and a squirt of lemon. Or better, boil it for three minutes, drain, and then sauté it with very little oil, lemon and maybe some garlic.

Agretti are becoming very trendy in Italian restaurants these days, though there really aren’t any classic recipes. It’s great as a side dish with any kind of seafood, or (like its close cousin salicornia, marsh samphire) with seafood antipasti. One popular salad features agretti and smoked salmon. You can put it on pasta (try it with dried tomatoes), or in an omelette or quiche. Use it in Asian dishes too. The Japanese saltwort oka hijiki , or ‘land seaweed’, is practically the same thing; the Japanese like it as a cold salad with soy sauce or vinegar.

7 July 2014

Malta’s Tomato Epiphany

We simply don’t get to Malta often enough. The last time was in spring 1980, in fact, when the food in the restaurants was pretty bland. But I remember the crusty bread was delicious. 

Back in Malta again in 2014, the bread was still as delicious as ever, but what came as a revelation (at least to me) were the things that you could dip or spread on it. At Gululu, in the seaside resort of Saint Julians, an excellent restaurant featuring updated Maltese country cuisine, they served generous helpings of four for a starter: ricotta and lemon zest; broad beans mashed with garlic and olive oil; black olives and garlic, very like tapenade; and anchovies and capers, very salty, pungent and delicious. 

What a wonderful way to start a meal, and no wonder the staff at Gululu were turning people away at the door.

On our first trip to Gozo back in 1980, one of the factoids that stayed with us was how Malta’s rural little-sister island was famous for ketchup; in fact these days you can go on a tour and learn about wide number of foods produced on the island—honey, fruit jams, sun dried tomatoes, pulses and Gozitan cheeselets. I was there on a Sunday so had to give it a pass. Next time!

In Gozo’s citadel of Rabat, or Victoria, we sipped Gozitan wines and had a platter of goodies at Ta' Rikardu, a wine bar and local institution. The delightful owner Rikardu has a farm nearby, and produces nearly everything he served,  including sun-ripened and sun-dried tomatoes from his garden, juicy olives and the fattest capers I’ve ever seen, along with his own fresh and aged cheeses, some of which go into his plump ravioli.

A few minutes' drive away at Ta’ Mena, Malta’s first agroturism estate, celebrity chef George Borj treated us to the estate’s lovely white, red and rosé wines, and introduced me to apogee of Maltese tomato-dom, modestly called ‘Sweet Tomato Paste’, artisanally made with tomato pulp preserved in the original pre-refrigeration method, dried and stirred and dried and stirred, with sea salt and sugar. 

The result, spread on bread, was tangy, sweet, rich and utterly delicious. It didn't only taste like a tomato, it tasted better.  A true tomato epiphany.

And as George Borj added, it keeps up to 20 years in the fridge—but there's no way it will last that long.