All about barba di frate, agretti, and all its other aliases

The boxes are part of an initiative to bring The River Cafe to your home. The Italian descriptions are part of the exotica, as is the price — the box has cost an equally exotic £150. What exactly is agretti, I wonder, as I inspect a paper bag of what looks like green spaghetti. Also known as saltwort, it turns out to be a succulent that grows in coastal areas and tastes like a skinnier, more tender type of samphire: it’s great with the pomodoro, which we know as tomato sauce.

Jo Ellison interviews Ruth Rogers, Lunch with the FT, Feb 2021

How many names does this vegetable have?

This vegetable has more aliases than you can shake a stick at. In many countries it’s known by its Italian name, Barba di Frate, which means Monk’s Beard (for obvious reasons), translated: in French it’s barbe de moine and in German,  Mönchsbart.

The English, as usual, go their own way where it’s either saltwort, barilla or Russian thistle; very occasionally friar’s beard. Actually, the Italians also have other names for it – agretti, and roscana.

In Japan it’s known as  land seaweed or ‘Okahijiki’ in Japan.

What does it look like?

It looks a bit like very thick chives, but it’s a succulent, so it also looks a bit like seaweed.

What does barba di frate taste like?

Barba di frate is a bit tart, with a mineral tang. One of its other names is agretti, which means ‘little sour one’. If it tastes like anything it’s spinach, with maybe a bit of asparagus thrown in. This is a plant which attracts salt, one of its names is not saltwort for nothing and in the past it’s been used to make a type of sodium carbonate for making soap and glass. So it’s also a bit salty…not in the in-your-face way that samphire is, more ‘chivey’,more like cima di rapa. But the succulent texture of samphire is a bit similar to the fleshy needle shaped barba di frate. It tastes a bit …. like a spring Italian holiday!

What flavours does barba di frate go with?

  • Oil
  • Lemon, particularly good with preserved lemon
  • Garlic
  • Anchovy…. Although take care not to overload the saltiness of the dish
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Asparagus
  • fish and seafood

What can you do with barba di frate?

1. Raw, snipped into salads

You can use young barba di frate raw, snipped into salads – it gives a slightly salty crunch. Try cutting it into a salad of asparagus, chive flowers and fava beans with an apple slaw dressing. Or try a yoghurt-spring onion dressing.

2. Add to pasta

It’s often added to pasta, specifically garlic and oil (aglio e olio) pasta in the usual way, with a little added lemon. To do this, make simply add the barba di frate into the pasta water in the last couple of minutes of cooking. Try adding spring onions, burrata, clams or cooked crab, or, as Ruth Rogers suggests in the quote at the top of this post, with tomatoes. Or bathe in orange butter and add to spaghetti.

what is agretti
Agretti with pasta

3. As an accompaniment – boiled or braised

Simply take off the roots of the barba di frate. It does well in sandy soils, so it may still be a bit sandy. If that’s the case, rinse it in cold water.  Bring a big pot of very lightly salted water to the boil, add the barba di frate and boil for five minutes or so. The leaves should have softened, but still retained a bit of crunch. Drain and rinse with cold water to retain the emerald green colour. Alternatively you can also braise it (prepare as for boiling, fry gently in olive oil, then add a little dry martini, cover, and cook gently for five or ten minutes). Serve the barba di frate with olive oil, lemon, and maybe some garlic and/or a few chopped anchovies, or some anchovy paste (or Gentleman’s Relish if you have that).

4. Make a meal of it

Or you can make more of a meal of it by adding balsamic vinegar, softly hard boiled eggs and thick, syrupy balsamic vinegar. Or with fresh pecorino and salami. Or with garlic prawns.

5. As a bed for fish

It goes well with all kinds of fish, red mullet for example; or as in the photo below, which I took at The Pig On The Beach, with wild sea trout, crispy gnocchi, and crab dressing.

what is agretti
Agretti with wild sea trout, crispy gnocchi, and crab dressing.

6. Sushi

It is used in Japan, where this plant is also native, for sushi.

7. You can fry it, or add it to stir fries

Chop into smaller pieces and add to stir fries.

Or fry pancetta gently, while you de-root, wash and dry the barba di frate. Add the barba di frate and continue to fry for five minutes or so, again until the leaves soften but a crunchy texture is retained. For more details, go to Deborah Mele’s lively blog.

8. You can use it with ricotta

You can make a savoury cheesecake with it.

Or you can make pine nut and ricotta frittata rolls.

9. Serve entwined with new potatoes

As with the pasta, add the barba di frate to the potato water about five minutes before the potatoes will be done. Drain, and add olive oil, tarragon, and maybe some chopped anchovies.

10. You can steam it

Some say the best thing to do with it, to retain colour and crunch, is to steam it lightly. Then, again, add the oil and lemon.

What can you substitute for barba di frate?

Probably the best thing would be spinach; or cima di rapa.

When is the season for barba di frate?

Barba di frate has a short season in early spring. But it will grow year round in cold polytunnels.

Is barba di frate easy to grow?

Barba di frate grows naturally around the edges of the Mediterranean, but it is possible to grow it further north, inland, from seed. In fact, as I say above, it can be grown all year round in a cold polytunnel.

In the UK, you can get seeds from Mr Fothergill’s and Chiltern Seeds, as well as many other suppliers.

In the US, you can get seeds from Seeds From Italy.

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