Spaghetti with monk’s beard
The sudden burst of spring produce in the market after a long, monotonous winter of cavolo nero and bright oranges is one of the things that constantly reminds me why I love living and eating in Italy. A wander through the market like any other becomes, in spring time, a new experience. I feel like a fresh arrival, like it’s my first time walking through my local market.
There are long, twisty fava bean pods, waiting to be podded and munched on with bitey pecorino cheese to tame the bitterness of the raw beans. Thin, long-stemmed asparagus. A lovely array of greens, including radishes with leaves so happy that they become the main ingredient, fluffy-fronded fresh herbs and fresh garlic. Artichokes of many different kinds, but especially the pointed purple ones that are either local, from Tuscany’s Maremma, or sometimes from Puglia or Sicily. Rarely the rounded globe artichokes you find spilling out of crates in Rome, or the tiny, delicate Venetian ones, the so-called castraure (though they often aren’t the real deal, how you can tell is by the price) that you can find in the shadow of the Rialto.
And then there are thick bunches of agretti (salsola soda), looking more like mermaid’s hair than a monk’s beard, their English namesake. A few years ago, this wasn’t such a common sight at the market in Florence. It still isn’t, in that you won’t get them by the crateful like you do fava beans and artichokes, though they’re not particularly difficult to find now. They’re just one of those special things that don’t last long. Blink and you’ll miss them, or come late to the market and they could easily be sold out. It’s worth getting up and out of the house a little earlier for these (a note to myself, of course).
If you’ve never tasted agretti before, it’s worth seeking out if you’re in the right place at the right time and find a bunch or see it on a menu. Frances Mayes likens it to spinach, but notes that it is so much more, “While agretti has the mineral sharpness of spinach, it tastes livelier, full of the energy of spring.” The long, thin fronds have a texture that you would expect from a succulent, with a bite, almost a pop, to them. And it has a naturally salty flavour that hints at the sea — it grows in saltwater, after all.
This unique texture and briny flavour is what makes agretti special and so versatile. You don’t want to mess around too much with it and ruin that uniqueness. You can do things with it that you wouldn’t do with, say, spinach or samphire, another sea-salty green, like this quick pasta dish. It’s essentially an aglio, olio, peperoncino with monk’s beard thrown in, which I like somehow even more for the simple fact that the agretti strands mimick the spaghetti strands and they become one.
But do get an extra big bunch, and try some of it like this, and the rest of it like a side dish, perhaps with some anchovy butter like Rachel Roddy mentions. Or take that and turn it into a dish of its own. Valeria Necchio cooks it with melted butter and anchovies and tops it with an egg, which sounds like my idea of heaven, or at least what I would make if I were stuck on an island since I would obviously take a lifetime supply of butter, anchovies and eggs with me to survive. Hopefully it’s an island like Sicily where agretti grow.
Spaghetti con agretti
Spaghetti with monk’s beard
- 1 bunch (about 250 grams or roughly half a pound) of monk’s beard (salsola soda)
- 3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1 dried chilli
- 320 grams spaghetti
Put a large saucepan of water on to boil for the pasta. Add about a teaspoon of salt for each litre of water.
Clean the monk’s beard by pulling off any tired looking strands and chopping off the pink roots. Wash in a large bowl of clean water and drain.
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over low-medium heat and add the garlic cloves. Let the garlic cook gently in the oil, infusing the olive oil without burning or colouring. If you find it’s browning too quickly, turn the heat down, remove the garlic and continue without. Add the chilli and then the monk’s beard, along with a pinch of salt. It will no doubt sizzle and spit when the wet monk’s beard hits the hot, oily pan. Quickly add about half a cup of water (white wine is nice too) and cook, turning with tongs for even cooking, for about 5 minutes or until the thickest part of the monk’s beard stem is cooked through and the fronds are still bright green. If the water for the pasta is now boiling, add the pasta and cook until al dente.
Remove the cooked monk’s beard, along with its juices, to a bowl and set aside while you drain the pasta.
Keep about half a cup of the pasta cooking water, then place the pasta and the greens back into the frying pan and, over low heat, toss together, adding, if needed, another couple of tablespoons of olive oil and the reserved pasta water.
Serve, as is, immediately. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice over this is quite nice and a sprinkling of Parmesan is not out of place but I like it just as it is.