Bruscandoli, or wild hop shoots, are one of those foraged foods that mark the start of spring in Veneto. And although their fleeting season is coming to an end now that the cool rainfalls of April have given way to days of warm May sun, there is still a little chance to find them.
I had no hope of finding them this week, on my usual walk along the canal. It’s been too hot, I thought. And yet there they were – pale green leaves and curly stems and delicate tops reaching up towards the sky. There they were, growing through the insidious blackberry shrubs that haven’t yet bloomed, and around the rows of rushes swinging in the feeble breeze. Fragile they are, but also vital, and powerful as they propel themselves higher than anything around them like a stretched arm as if to say: “Pick me.”
I have been home in Veneto for almost a month now and I love it. I have enjoyed the garden at its most beautiful, and the countryside at its lushest, and the produce at its most tender, before the harsh heat would ripen the first tomatoes and stone fruits, and then paint everything a burnt shade of yellow. Right now, we have blush English roses dangling down from the pergola where we have already had a few alfresco meals. The jasmine and honeysuckle bushes, planted at the opposite side of the patio, each claim their portion of the fence; they seem to be playing a game of who’s best at dazing me with their stunning scent as I walk by.
Outside that fence, my little home village is surrounded by sweeps of corn and wheat and barley, and by many fallow fields exploding with red poppies. It’s beautiful, in the same moving way an impressionist painting can be – transient, hazy, immediate. There are ditches and canals separating parcels of land, and along these grow elderflower and black locust trees, and walnut and willow trees. On the ground, underneath my feet, on the edge of waterways and between lines of poplars are all sorts of edible delights: nettles and dandelion and chamomile, purslane and mallow (the latter sporting some classy velvet-like leaves and violet flowers). And, among the more insidious brambles, the prized wild hops, a prolific native crop that Venetians love cooking and eating to the point of including it in some iconic regional spring dishes.
In a lovely passage of her compendium of culinary articles, called An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, Elizabeth David shares her first encounter with bruscandoli. It was at Locanda Cipriani, an idyllic restaurant set on the verdant Venetian island of Torcello. Having observed a couple at a neighbouring table waxing lyrical about a plate of risotto laced with some mysterious seasonal greens, she enquired about the nature of such green. The couple answered that they were bruscandoli – hop shoots – and warned her about the transient nature of this seasonal crop. The following day, she headed to the Rialto market and found a stall selling them. But only a few days later, much to her despair, she found no trace of them. They were gone with the first heat wave. They would be back the following year, she was told.
Thankfully for me, for us, there are still a few around to pick and eat.
With them, I often make risotto – the classic Venetian dish David describes so wonderfully, the recipe for which will be in my cookbook. Sometimes I stir a handful into a cheesy omelette, which I then ease in between slices of bread and eat with abandon, picnic style, juices running down my wrists. More recently, however, I whipped up these simple crostini, whose deliciousness made them climb the top chart of my favourite things to eat at this time of the year.
The idea spurred quite casually. I had just pulled a loaf of bread from the oven and wanted to make it an important part of the meal (things on toast are my thing on most days), and, having just bought a tub of fresh goat’s cheese from the local dairy, I was pretty set on a seasonal sort of open-faced sandwiches. Freshly foraged hops became the remaining part of the puzzle. Without much thinking, following the same sequence of gestures I’d follow for most tender seasonal greens, I quickly blanched the hops in salted water, then plunged them into an ice bath to revive their spirits. A passage in a pool of garlic oil enhanced their flavour, without dissipating the lovely, aromatic bitterness that makes them so very special. Tamed, the tangles of greens were finally set on toasted slices of bread smeared with lemony, creamy cheese. Flaky salt. Lunch.
Bruscandoli Crostini with Goat’s Cheese
You can swap the bruscandoli (wild hop shoots) with wild asparagus, dandelion or other seasonal wild leaf or shoot of your liking and that you think might suit this sort of quick and simple preparation. I love these as a quick, light lunch, but they work very well as an appetiser.
100g bruscandoli (wild hop shoots)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
8 slices of crusty bread, toasted
100g fresh (spreadable) goat’s cheese or goat’s curd
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Start by cleaning the hop shoots: discard any woody, hard part of the stalk as well as the leaves. Rinse the tops under cold running water and pat them dry.
Bring a pot of salted water to the boil. Add the shoots and blanch for a minute; drain, cool under very cold water (or plunge into an ice bath) to block their cooking and preserve their bright green colour. Pat dry and set aside.
Set a medium skillet over a medium-high heat and pour in the oil. When hot, add the garlic and fry for a minute, just enough for it to infuse the oil, ensuring that it doesn’t colour. Stir in the hop shoots and stir-fry them for a couple of minutes, until glistening and tender. Season with salt and pepper.
Spread the goat’s cheese over the toasted bread. Top each slice with a forkful of hop shoots. Serve.Print recipe