The botanical family of Agretti is Salicornia. It is a Saltwort, also known as Land Seaweed. The closest we have to the plant in the UK is our Marsh Samphire, otherwise known as Glasswort from when it was calcined to alkali for glass-making. This fact sits oddly with Samphire’s delicious, succulent eating qualities. Agretti has a myriad of other names in Southern Europe where it grows. These include Barba di Frate, Roscano and Monk’s Beard. Here we’ll call it Agretti for simplicity.
Agretti is a plant that has adapted to grow in salty seaside conditions but can be grown commercially given enough warmth and water. At Puntarelle & Co, we source our Agretti from Italy. It’s a plant that is not much grown commercially here in the UK as it needs a long germination period. Harvests here come in June-September. It grows in fleshy, succulent, grass-like strands, usually sold with some length of reddish/brown roots but it is a good “cut-and-come-again” plant. Our own native Samphire arrives in spring/summer. Though their succulent growth looks quite different – Samphire stems being thicker and jointed - Agretti and Samphire can be treated very similarly in the kitchen. Both are good when briefly boiled or steamed and simply eaten with butter or a hollandaise sauce. A few anchovy fillets heated in butter until they melt, make a perfect sauce. Try blanched Agretti with diced winter Camone tomatoes and a grating of bottarga (salted cured fish roe). Both Agretti and Samphire make excellent accompaniments to fish and are a good addition to a bowl of crab soup. They also pickle and ferment extremely well.
Though Samphire is familiar to us in the UK, given that it grows around our own coastline, Agretti is a much more recent arrival on our plates. You will search in vain for the vegetable in popular recipe books published more than 7-8 years ago – whatever name you search for it under. It’s not difficult to see why chefs in the UK like it. Arriving in our late winter/early spring, Agretti comes as a welcome change from the broccoli and cabbage varieties that have featured strongly on our plates over the winter months. With a crunchy yet juicy texture and mineral flavour, it effortlessly fills the early spring hunger-gap until more tender varieties of vegetables arrive on our plates.