Another less-than-wanted obligation has suddenly piled up on my to do list. But I’m still going to go ahead with putting some thoughts about something dear to my heart anyway, as I had planned for this morning. The emails, messages and phone calls I suddenly need to make can wait. The endless load of clothing that needs to be washed can sit in the dirty laundry basket for a few hours longer. The same goes for TT’s unmade bed and those dishes from this morning’s breakfast lurking guiltily in my sink. For once, so what?
Nature is transient and so is the food it provides us with, hence this determination to set aside some time do one of the things I love the most in life, which is writing about it. A few years ago, when I discovered that the stunning white robinia blossoms in spring that lined TP’s family’s property in the Monferrato countryside were edible, I realised this. All the books and resources on the subject I found told me that I would have, at the very most, only two achingly brief weeks to enjoy their heady perfume, reminscent of jasmine, while walking through the woods and meadows or, most importantly to a gastronome like me, in cooking.
This spring, I’m happy to report that I was prepared, for once. Every weekend in April, in the lead up to the much-anticipated blossoming or fioritura, I took note of every suitable spot for foraging the impending flower clusters. Each weekend, the trees got greener and grew more leaves. They also began to shed the pea-like pods they produce in autumn. Sure enough, in the first week of May, their flowers began to appear and almost immediately, I whipped up some flour, water, beer and salt for frying the frittelle or fritters I’d long dreamed of making. I placed my bowl of hoppy batter in the fridge to chill and rushed off with picnic basket and a pair of gardening scissors to the nearest robinia tree that lined our property.
Robinia pseudoacacia is native to the southeastern United States, where it is known as black locust. Ever since the French royal herbalists Jean and Vespasien Robin (1579-1662) cultivated the first tree in Paris’ Place René Viviani in 1601, it has been naturalised elsewhere in Europe and around the world. In the late 1700s, Swedish botanist Carl von Linné would name the species Robin and son had introduced to Europe as Robinia pseudoacacia, in honour of the French herbalists and to distinguish it from the true acacias of Africa and Australia. In Italian, it’s known simply as acacia. In Piedmont however, which is apparently home to more hectares of robinia forest than any other Italian region (about 85 000), you’ll most likely hear locals referring to it as gaggia or gasia. At one point, robinia was in fact considered so invasive in the region that it was wrongly blamed for spreading the phylloxera virus that devasted many of Italy and France’s vineyards in the late 19th century.
Invasive pest or weed it may be, but that hasn’t stopped Italians from enjoying the tastes of its beautiful, fragrant flowers in mid to late spring. Below you’ll find a recipe, adapted from those of Giulia Scarpaleggia and Emiko Davies for possibly the most beloved way of cooking these, battered and deep-fried in hot oil. These crisp, delicately-flavoured fritters are remarkably versatile. They can be served as an afternoon snack or appetiser and in either a sweet or savoury fashion. If opting for the former, a sprinkling of icing sugar or a drizzle of honey (acacia, of course!) on top work wonderfully. Sprinkle some fleur de sel or flaky sea salt if wanting to do the latter. Just so you know, this batter can also be used to fry up herbs such as sage leaves and other edible flowers, such as elderflower and borage.
Some concluding notes, this time on foraging and prepping the robinia flowers themselves. First of all, do forage in a location that’s less likely to be polluted. Robinia trees are annoyingly fond of roadsides but it’s best to avoid areas like these. It’s also best to set out with your picnic basket and gardening scissors in tow in the morning when picking these fragrant blooms. Their intense perfume will be strongest then. If it has just rained or the flowers look old and wilted, don’t bother though, as they will have lost their scent. Tempting though it may be, you should also avoid washing the blooms you collect once you get home. To remove any insects, simply chill your clusters in the fridge before placing them in the batter. Finally, only the flowers themselves are edible! Any leaves and twigs you accumulate during your foraging efforts should be discarded once you get home. To facilitate preparing and serving your fritters though, the central stem of each cluster of flowers should remain in tact.
Ingredients (makes about 15 fritters)
- 150 g flour
- a pinch of salt
- 100 mL beer
- 150 mL water
- 15 clusters of robinia flowers
- vegetable oil for frying
- flaky sea salt or acacia honey, for serving
Put flour and salt in mixing bowl. Add water and beer in a slow and steady stream to avoid forming lumps. Whisk until batter is smooth and runny. Leave batter to rest and chill in the fridge for at least half an hour.
In the meantime, remove any leaves or twigs or leaves from the clusters of robinia flowers. Chill in the fridge to encourage any bugs to go away before frying.
Heat enough vegetable oil for deep frying in your pan to about 160°C. If you don’t have a thermometer handy, test the temperature by lowering the end of a wooden spoon into the oil. If bubbles immediately bob to the surface around it, your oil is ready.
Dip a cluster of flowers into the bowl of batter and coat evenly. Hold the bunch by the central stem to ensure any excess batter comes off. Carefully transfer battered cluster to the hot oil. Cook on each side for about 1 minute or until evenly crisp and pale golden. Drain on a plate lined with absorbent paper towels. Dip and fry the remaining clusters. Serve immediately with a sprinkling of flaky sea salt or a drizzle of acacia honey.