21 August 2016

Growing agretto and a recipe for agretto with cockles and lemon beurre blanc

Agretto, also known as barba di frate, monk's beard, or by its latin name salsola soda, has become increasingly popular on restaurant menus in the last couple of years. It is native to the Mediterranean and has been eaten in Italy for many years. Texturally it is quite like marsh samphire. It has a fresh grassy flavour, with just a hint of iron-tinged bitterness which belies the fact that, despite appearances, it is related to chard and spinach. Although found on restaurant menus, it can be hard to come by in the UK, where I've never seen it for sale in any retail greengrocers. Last year I thought I'd have a go at growing some. I can't have been the only one, as the handful of seed merchants I found who sell the seeds had all run out. This year I made sure that I got my seed order in early. My experiment was successful and I found it grew very well.

Cockles, agretto, lemon beurre blanc

Growing agretto in the UK

Agretto is a coastal plant, and its ability to tolerate saline conditions means that, like samphire, it will grow on salt marshes. My veg plot is only a few hundred metres from the sea, but apparently agretto can be grown well away from the sea. A lot of mainstream seed merchants don't currently sell agretto seeds. I got mine from Seeds of Italy, who are great for unusual Italian varieties of vegetable. The seeds have a short shelf life, so need to be ordered fresh each year. They also are renowned for their low germination rate, so should be sown fairly closely. They germinate better in cooler weather. I sowed mine about 1 inch apart in mid-March and found that the germination rate was relatively good.

Agretto seeds

As spring wore on, small frond-like leaves thrusting out of the earth. The plants grew at a steady pace, and I was able to make my first picking in early July. As summer wore on the agretto plants bushed out a lot, and I was able to harvest larger amounts. As the plants grow, their central stems do get a bit woody, but the peripheral leaves and stems remain tender.

Culinary uses for agretto

Agretto is often served with fish. I find that it also goes well with lamb. Before cooking, the peripheral leaves should be picked off the woody stems, which should be discarded. Agretto can be blanched or steamed. As a side the Italians often eat it with a little extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. I find that its grassy slightly bitter flavours can be accentuated too much by olive oil, which can be fairly grassy and slightly bitter itself, and enjoy it with a butter-based sauce. For these reasons it is also delicious poached in beurre monté. The tender tips are also tasty raw and make an interesting leaf in the salad bowl.

Agretto, cockles and lemon beurre blanc

Agretto often features on restaurant menus as a bit player in a fish dish. I wanted to create a dish that was all about the agretto. A handful of cockles nestled in the agretto provide nuggets of salty meatiness, and the acidic richness of the lemon beurre blanc balances the lean flavour of the agretto. The dish makes an ideal starter or small plate. The recipe serves four.


A big bunch of agretto
1 shallot
Approx 20 cockles
60ml dry vermouth such as Noilly Prat
45ml lemon juice
15ml white wine vinegar
30ml verjus
100g unsalted butter, softened and cut into cubes
Salt and pepper to taste

Peel and finely chop the shallot. Place in a small pan with 30ml/2tbsp vermouth, 15ml/1tbsp vinegar, and 45ml/3 tbsp lemon juice. Place over a low heat and reduce until about 1 tbsp liquid remains. By this point the shallot should be soft. Set aside.

Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil.

Rinse the agretto and pick the peripheral leaves and stems off the woody shoots ready to cook.

Place the cockles in a sink full of cold water. Give them a scrub to clean and discard any that do not close.

Return the reduction for the beurre blanc to a low heat. Whisk the butter in piece by piece, whisking continuously so that the butter emulsifies with the reduction. Taste and add salt and pepper to season. Set aside in a warm place.

Place a medium pan over a heat. When the pan is hot, throw in the cockles along with about 30ml each of vermouth and verjus. Exactness is not necessary here - a good glug of each will do. Cover the pan and shake vigourously. The cockles will open once cooked after a minute or two. Allow to cool slightly then pick the cockles, discarding their shells. (The cooking liquor can be strained through muslin to remove any grit then used as fish stock).

Meanwhile blanche the agretto. Once tender (2-3 minutes) drain.

Place the agretto on the plate, nestle in a few cockles, then pour over the beurre blanc.

The cockles!

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