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.