These are the bulbs of wild hyacinths, tassel or grape hyacinths to be precise, Muscari racemosum. They are treasured in Puglia where they’re harvested in the wild in late winter and early spring when the bulbs are just starting to wake up and grow again.
As you can see by looking closely, these have a pale shoot that is just beginning to shape up. By the time the stalk of delicate, bell-like purple flowers have formed, all of the energy in the bulb has gone into making the plant grow and they are no longer tasty little treasures for Pugliese tables.
Lampascioni are always cooked, sometimes pickled, but never raw. They are considered a garnish par excellence of the favorite Pugliese dish, fave e cicoria, a mixture of pureed dried fava beans and steamed wild chicory greens. Along with the sweetness of the fave and the sharpness of the chicory, there’s a wonderfully bitter, pungent flavor from the lampascioni.
Bitterness is one of those tastes that it’s sometimes hard to get our palates around but it’s a prized flavor throughout traditional regions of the Mediterranean–I like to think it reflects the Mediterranean appreciation for the sweet bitterness, the bitter sweetness, of life itself. You can’t have one without the other.
Greeks too like these bulbs and call them voulvi. It’s just one of the many correspondences I’ve found between Greek and Southern Italian (especially Pugliese) cooking, doubtless a relic of the long centuries when Greece was dominant in southern Italy. I’ve also been told of lampascioni sold in Provençal markets although I’ve never actually seen it myself.
I bought about 3/4 kilo (1 1/2 pounds roughly) of these in the market in Andria recently and brought them home to Tuscany to cook them. I imagine if you can find tassel or grape hyacinths in an uncontaminated field you could harvest them and cook them too. The directions are dead simple: Cut off the tops and bottoms and peel the tough, often muddy outside skin, just as you would with an onion. Bring a mixture of 2:1 water and vinegar to a simmer and add the cleaned lampascioni. Let them simmer away, covered, for 30 to 40 minutes or until the bulbs are tender. Then drain them in a colander and return them to the saucepan, adding about half a cup of olive oil, a chopped red onion, a minced clove of garlic, and a handful of chopped parsley. Cook all this together, stirring it up, until the bulbs are very tender. Serve the lampascioni immediately.
They’re great with lamb or roast pork, not so interesting with chicken or beef. Or squash them with a fork and serve on top of crostini of toasted bread as an appetizer.
This is completely fascinating to me. I have never tasted lampascioni. Here in America bitter is indeed an acquired taste, accustomed as we are to very sweet things. I think that is beginning to change to some degree, and it is starting among drinkers as they begin to enjoy many Italian liquors that have decidedly bitter flavor profiles. In fact, as people drink more and more of these things and become accustomed to the bitter part of the flavor, they are discovering that along with that bitter is a good deal of decidedly sweet flavor. I’d say Zucca, which is now being imported to this country and becoming popular, is a prime example. I am always pleased when I see more and more Italian liquors on barmen’s shelves. Perhaps I will see lampascioni in my Farmer’s Market next! I agree with you – the Mediterranean people’s love for the bittersweet is a metaphor for life.
Carissima! I am so glad to read your article on Lampascioni. We import a delicious pickled lampascioni from Basilicata, and many people don’t “understand” the flavor… your article now sheds some good light for us on how to explain it!
I’ve used them as a garnish to my artista di maiale, and they are incredible!
Thanks, Rolando! I would love to try some of Manicaretti’s pickled lampascioni. I love them also with pureed dried fave and fresh, steamed cicoria, a Pugliese classic that ought to be the emblem of the Mediterranean diet.
The only dish that I know that includes that as an ingredient- versus a pickle- is a rabbit dish here in the Salento. In Calabria they are eaten widely (the ‘sc’ becomes a ‘g’). Wild, they are much larger and begin to taste like a vegetable versus a sassy onion.
Can anyone tell me where I can purchase these raw bulbs ?
years ago it was more readily foound in the Italian deli market but then they disappeared … what a shame… I would love to have them again.. especially around Easter.. my mother would make them with roasted lamb or boiled with oil salt and pepper … DELICIOUS!
Where do we get them in the USA?
Linda, I’ve seen these sold at some Greek grocers on 9th Avenue in Manhattan. I suggest you ask in any Greek or southern Italian shop near you. You can also find them on Amazon but they are bottled and presumably already cooked. Why not make a trip to Puglia to taste them on site?
Why not raw? What happens when you eat them raw?
They just don’t taste very good, bitter, unpleasant, sort of like eating raw olives right off the tree.
My family used to make these with sausage and veal in a tomato sauce . Also just boiled and tossed in with sausage fried couldn’t find these for years we used to get them on Arthur Ave in the Bronx NY would love to find these and try to recreate that dish which was always served around Easter time