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Saturday, 5 April 2008

Wild asparagus from Crete - avronies (Αυρωνιές - άγρια σφαράγγια)

I know I'm going to get into trouble by telling you that in Crete, we eat Tamus communis. You'll be up in arms, claiming that all sources which mention it state that it is poisonous. That's what they said about deadly nightshade, and yet, in Crete (and Turkey, where it's also known by the same name as in Greece, stifno or stifnos), we eat it on a regular basis with our summer horta (mixed in with amaranth, which we call vlita).

It's wild asparagus time in Crete (the locals call them 'avronies'), and some of my friends who live in small rural villages eat them as often as they can get their hands on them. They're both still alive. Most people would have you believe that asparagus is not eaten in Greece. Wrong; it's been here forever, but not in the form that it has become popularly westernised. In any case, the Greek word for asparagus is σφαράγγι, 'sfaragee'. The western version - big fat spears, shipped to Greece all the way from Peru - are available in large supermarkets near tourist centres - guess who they're for - at 7-8 euro a kilo; so many carbon footprints to eat what can be found in a local field...

A few days ago, we visited the village on a snail-hunting mission (the culinary results of this forage will appear in a post in the summer). We also found some wild asparagus, albeit in small quantities. It had already been picked by other foragers before we got to our own fields. And no wonder; avronies sell for about 4 euro a bundle. It is never cultivated, therefore it must be tracked down by dedicated foragers. It needs to be blanched before being used, in order to remove any bitterness. Because the stalks of the wild asparagus are very long, they are cut into shorter pieces to accomodate the pot or pan. Only the tenderest parts of the long shoots are eaten (much like Western asparagus). It is then used in a similar way to what I have described for scrambled eggs with wild greens, but wild asparagus requires a longer cooking time, depending on how tender the stalks are. And since I didn't find many spears on my last hunting expedition, I can only make an omelette for one with them.

You need:
4 wild asparagus spears - cut them down as far as possible before they get too woody
1 onion, chopped finely
1 egg
2 tablespoons of olive oil
salt and pepper
Boil the asparagus spears for about five minutes. Smell them; they exude a fresh spring aroma which has a carthartic effect on your nose. Drain them and cut into smaller pieces. Make sure you don't keep any stalks that are too tough to eat. Put them aside.

Heat the oil in a small frying pan, saute the onion and add the asparagus. Toss everything to mix it in well. Break an egg into the pan, and stir it around to scramble it. If you prefer, you can turn it into an omelette. Let it cook on moderate heat, until the egg is cooked to your liking. The smell by now will be intoxicating.

I know we have to check our sources, so here is what NIKOS PSILLAKIS (co-author of the book "Traditional Cretan Cooking") has to say about this issue:
Γεια σας!
Θα θέλαμε να σας πούμε ότι τα κείμενα για τα βότανα στο βιβλίο μας τα έχει γράψει ειδικός βοτανολόγος και είναι απολύτως έγκυρα. Όντας, οι αβρωνιές μοιάζουν λίγο με άγριο σπαράγγι και σε μεγάλες ποσότητες θεωρούνται τοξικές. Όμως στην Κρήτη τις τρώμε. Δεν γνωρίζομε για άλλα μέρη της Ελλάδας.
Πολλούς χαιρετισμούς
Νίκος Ψιλάκης

... which all translates as:
"Hello! We would like to say that the writings on the herbs in the book have been written by our expert botanist and are completely valid. For purists, avronies seem a little like wild asparagus and in large quantities are considered toxic. But in Crete we eat them. We do not know about other places in Greece. Many greetings, Nikos Psilakis"

Another source backs him up:
Tamus cretica
The Greeks use the young suckers like Asparagus, which they much resemble.
T. cretica is a native of Greece and the Greek Archipelago.

Here's another source for wild asparagus, from Italy; the beautiful photo shows a plant resembling the wild asparagus I collected, the same one sold in the market. The article discusses how foragers hunt down the wild asparagus, so that there's very little left for the untrained eye to discern.

It's good to know that people all over the world are eating the same kinds of food, albeit in different colour
s, shapes and sizes. It reminds me of how we are all human beings, coming in different colours, shapes and sizes ourselves. We should all be aware of the local varieties of the commonly westernised image of particular edibles, in order to make biodiversity sustainable.

And here's a rare sight in a Greek village, which we chanced on the day we went on our forage. I'm sure you'll enjoy it: this peacock was strutting around the area of our orange grove ,where we found the asparagus!

This post is dedicated to Fiona, because I know how much she likes people to get names and facts right.

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Scrambled eggs with wild mustard greens
Potato salad

Kalitsounia fried
Kalitsounia in the oven
Spiral pie
Hortopita (spanakopita)
Horta in winter
Horta in summer
Swiss chard (silverbeet)
Eggs with mustard greens
Mountain tea
Octopus stew