Agretti or Barba di frate

Agretti are a typical vegetable of the Mediterranean diet; it is not always easy to find them on the market, as it is a particular vegetable, we would say almost "niche", but in many areas of Italy it is typical of some traditional recipes, in which it enters as a main ingredient. In Emilia Romagna they are called bones, in other regions mustard friars, or monk beards. It has a pungent taste and can be eaten raw or cooked; its particular flavor has made it famous throughout the world, in fact the monk's beard is also cultivated in America and northern Europe. The botanical name is Salsola soda and is one of the few species of sauce commonly used in cooking, together with Salsola komarovii, widely used in Japanese cuisine. It is an annual succulent plant, which in Italy also develops in the wild; the plants left undisturbed form large bushes, roundish, up to 70 cm high, with fleshy stems, very branched, green or reddish, which bear small linear leaves; in the lower part they tend to become woody or woody seeds. It is a plant that develops particularly in the cooler periods of the year, and therefore from November to December, until the end of spring. Summer heat tends to cause plants to dry up.

Growing agretti

These small plants are generally available on the market already sprouted, in small bunches, consisting of the shoots of young plants; It is also possible to sow them, although in general these plants produce many seeds, of which few are actually fertile, so if we sow them we are careful to spread a large amount of seed on the ground, or we will be destined to obtain meager crops. They are plants with little or no demand, in nature they also develop on the beaches, resisting very well the presence of salt in the soil; they are in fact halophyte plants, or that can survive even in the presence of sodium chloride in the soil, even in large quantities. They need a decidedly sunny plot, with direct sunlight for many hours a day; the soil must be soft and not particularly rich, possibly well drained and not subject to constant presence of water. Small plants are planted from late autumn until late winter, around February or March; they are arranged in rows, about 7-10 cm apart between the individual plants and between the rows. The harvest takes place as soon as the plants begin to sprout; of the salsola in fact only the young shoots are eaten, as the older branches tend to become excessively coriaceous, and the leaflets almost thorny. Constantly, during the period of development, which continues throughout the spring, the shoots are removed, so as to keep the seedlings low; if these plants are left undisturbed, they tend to branch and lignify in the lower part, becoming decidedly uninteresting for consumption. If we have planted too many plants, and part of the crop cannot be eaten immediately, these vegetables can remain in the refrigerator for a few days, or they can be frozen, to be eaten later.

Agretti in the kitchen

These particular vegetables are very appreciated, even by gourmets, as they have a strong and intense taste. They are typically used to season pasta, and are used just like turnip tops, or they are cooked directly together with the pasta that they will flavor. They are a poor vegetable, typical of rural cooking, without many frills. The youngest and most tender shoots can also be used raw, fresh, freshly picked, directly in salads, seasoned with oil and vinegar, alone or mixed with other leafy vegetables.
In Emilia Romagna they are used to stuff savory pies, they are also excellent in omelettes or quiche; in this case, before being used, the agretti should be boiled for a few minutes in water. Before the agretti were used, they were washed and cleaned, proceeding to remove the young leaves with a rigid and fleshy stem. The basal leaves of the agretti are very different from those that will develop later along the stems; in fact at the base of the plant a sort of rosette is formed, with more tender and elongated foliage; when the plant is allowed to grow and branch, it instead develops fleshy, very small, linear leaves, similar to the needles of the pine tree, or to the leaves of the purslane. Clearly the shoots with the basal leaves are consumed, which have a better taste, but above all a more pleasant consistency, slightly fleshy and crunchy, not leathery, and a beautiful bright green color.

A strange name

Soda salsola has a name that derives from the use made of it once; salsola plants are halophytic plants, which also develop in highly brackish soils, and can survive even if irrigated with sea water. The halophytic plants have the particularity of being able to render harmless the sodium present in the brackish water, storing it in the cell vacuoles. Therefore, they do not need sodium to survive, but simply are able to isolate it from water, making it harmless; while the common garden plants would die in the presence of sodium in the soil, especially if watered with large amounts of salt water.
This characteristic was exploited in industry, in factories that required soda, or sodium carbonate; the salsola soda plants were cultivated, especially in Spain and Italy (Venetian crops are famous), and then burned: from the ashes of these plants a good quantity of caustic soda, or sodium carbonate, was obtained, about 30% of the initial weight of the plants. Being very easy to grow small plants, which did not need fertilizers and also grew on the beaches, the production of soda in this way was very cheap. In particular, these plants in Italy were used to obtain the hard carbonate to be used in Murano furnaces to produce glasses and crystals. But soda is also a fundamental ingredient in the production of soaps, paper and various detergents; and the salsola was grown just to get this kind of substance, in a simple and cheap way.
At the end of the 1800s a chemist discovered Sodium (which is called so in memory of soda, while the scientific name is Natrium), and also the method to obtain sodium carbonate in a more rapid and efficient way; in this way the cultivations of salsola soda disappeared.