Finally! The daffodils in the park, the camelia & the magnolia down in the garden, the birds cheerfully chirping away in the morning.. spring!! … AND I found barba di frate (also called agretti) at one of my local semi-posh greengrocers (Newington Green Grocers-reccomended).
Barba di frate a.k.a. friar’s beard or agretti, is a green, slender vegetable, that looks like over-grown chives and tastes a bit like spinach and sorrel, but with a more metallic, mineral undertone. It is slightly bitter and also acidula ( a tiny bis sour, but on the pleasant side of sourness).
It has a very short season between March and April – it is one the real harbingers of spring, alongside forced rhubarb and nespole .
I find it particularly delicious simply steamed and dressed with olive oil and lemon or ripassata in padella with oil and garlic (that is: steamed and sautéed with oil and garlic) and/or tomatoes. I have also used it to dress spaghetti (carbonara-style: with eggs, cooked pancetta, Parmigiano, butter + steamed barba di frate) and in frittata. If in doubt or searching for inspiration, wherever you would use spinach or sorrel, barba di frate can be an unusual, succulent alternative.
In Italy is very popular and you can find it in street markets and supermarkets, in the UK it still a niche product. Here in London, I found it in good ethnic greengrocers (generally Turkish & at reasonable prices) or in posh (and expensive) shops. I paid £2.95 per bunch (which makes for one large portion): not cheap of course, but affordable; I have also seen it for sale at the formidable, eye-watering sum of £ 4.95 per bunch!
I had it for lunch few days ago, with good, fresh ricotta and Sicilian winter Marinda tomatoes (they are a recent winter variety, with good flavor and texture).
On fruit and vegetables: if u live in London: do check the Newington Green grocers, they have good stuff, like barba di frate, puntarelle, radicchio di Treviso, cime di rapa. Their prices are not too bad generally and their produce is of good quality most of the time.
On ricotta: if u live in London: I have found good, fresh ricotta (not the supermarket pap-style thing) at a very good cheese shop: Provisions Cheese and Wine in Holloway Rd (good price too: £ 4/300 g, which is acceptable, considering that in Borough Market I have seen fresh ricotta for £ 25-bliping £ 25 !!! per kg