Tuesday, 9 March 2010
We're supposed to be going up to the foothills of the Alps later this week, in the chilly northern province of Piedmont. Here's a view of mild, temperate Umbria this morning, though, so I don't know what we're letting ourselves in for. Whatever happens, any trip northwards will be preceded by a stop-off at these thermal pools near Siena. Most of the hotels with thermal spas will give non-guests a pretty reasonable day pass, usually around €10, and I cannot wait to immerse myself in these steaming baths. Any time the slightest hint of spring arrives, we get dumped on with piles of snow or days and days of rain.
Thursday, 4 March 2010
I've been meaning to highlight some unusual vegetables I've discovered in Italy (or meats, for that matter... or condiments, seasonings, cheeses, liqueurs...) and thought I'd start with the magical cardoon (looks like a giant celery, tastes like the best artichoke you've ever had), but that's sadly now out of season. What is in abundance at the moment is even more of a revelation. Known in English-speaking lands by the far much less inspiring name of saltwort, agretti is a grass-like cousin of the common tumbleweed (which, of course, has to begin life as a healthy green plant before beginning its inevitable roll across a dusty landscape). Saltwort also has an interesting history of industrial use, having once been the primary source of soda ash, crucial to traditional soap and glass production.
Historically (but not by necessity) cultivated in Mediterranean salt waters, it does have a slight saltiness worthy of its name. Agretti in Italian, though, implies a slight sourness. In actual fact, it has a very balanced, earthy flavour, most akin to very fresh spinach, with the mature depth of asparagus and strong earthiness of beetroot. It can be eaten raw but I like it cooked in just a little salted water for 3-4 minutes, enough time to swell the stalks and bring out some colour while keeping its firmness.
Its flavour is bold enough to suit minimal accompaniment, so it would probably be fine with just some butter and lemon juice, or olive oil and garlic. I learned a great recipe for a dressing from Walter at Ristonchia, though, which is definitely worth attempting. In a food processor, blend 10 shelled walnuts, one clove of garlic, the juice of half a lemon, salt, pepper and plenty of olive oil. Bring it to the smooth consistency of an oily salad dressing, and if it's too thick just add more olive oil. This is a mouth-watering match for agretti, but I'm sure it would also work well with asparagus, spinach, cavolo nero or other greens.
Sadly, it's hard to find young agretti outside Italy (and my understanding is that mature saltwort isn't edible, or at least isn't worth the bother). I think you'd have better luck trying to grow it in the US or UK than ever finding it in a supermarket. This company offers some seeds, but claims that even the seeds are a bit of a rarity.
Wednesday, 3 March 2010
I've just received the excellent news that my proposal to the biennial conference of the International Society for Ecological Economics in Bremen and Oldenburg, Germany has been accepted. I'll be chairing a discussion session on alternative agro-food networks for postgrad and early post-doc researchers, consisting of four short papers and then a long discussion with the speakers. I'm not an expert on ecological economics, which can get extremely technical on both the ecology and economic fronts, so didn't think my chances of acceptance were all that great. The feedback from the reviewers of my abstract was really positive though, so it appears my proposal was more relevant than I knew.
The next stage is to send out a call for papers on some mailing lists and then try to narrow all the submissions down to four presentations. I gave a 20-minute paper at the Royal Geographical Society conference in Manchester last year, but this is the first time I've chaired a discussion session so the responsibilities are quite different. Taking this role saves me actually writing a paper, though. And earns me a free trip to Germany!
Here's the abstract for the session: