POUND RIDGE, N.Y. -- Now and then a gardening venture turns into a detective story as in my Case of the Butcher's Broom.
Barely a day before I left for a villa in Tuscany on a September vacation, I got e-mail from a friend telling me to be sure to sample the local butcher's broom, which she said did wonders for an omelet.
Well, I confess I had never heard of butcher's broom, nor had my wife, an experienced gardener and quite sophisticated cook. The gardening reference books I owned had no mention of it. I did find it in the big Webster's Third New International Dictionary, which defined it as "a European leafless plant (Ruscus aculeatus) bearing stiff-pointed cladophylls and greenish flowers succeeded by red berries."
Although the adjective "stiff-pointed" provided a clue to the origin of the name "butcher's broom," the definition was no help on my omelet quest. Worse, I had no idea what the common name of the plant was in Italian. I know Italian, but the English-Italian dictionaries I consulted were blank on the word.
With no time left for deeper research stateside, I flew off to the hilltop Tuscan villa which my family, eight of us all told, had rented from an agent, sight unseen, in the farming town of Impruneta. The villa proved to be beautiful beyond our dreams, with a distant view of Florence and its russet-topped Duomo across miles of sun-bathed vineyards and olive groves.
What's more the villa had a spacious vegetable garden and a gardener, Antonio, who invited us to share his lettuces, tomatoes, figs, grapes and herbs. I fantasized that somewhere on the land there was a patch of butcher's broom, but how to ask Antonio about it?
Surely, with all the sight-seeing (and eating) to do in Florence and surroundings, my quest for butcher's broom had to take a back seat. Indeed that was true, but the curiosity and frustration lingered in a corner of my mind. I didn't want to tell my inquiring friend I had not found the herb.
Well, one afternoon, with a half hour to kill while waiting for a bus to take us from Florence back to the villa, my wife and I went into a bookstore. As we browsed, my eye caught a title, "Buone Erbe Selvatiche," which translates into "Good Wild Herbs." Would the booklet give me a clue to butcher's broom, perhaps under the botanical name which I had learned earlier was "Ruscus aculeatus?"
Luck was with me. Leafing eagerly, I found the plant under the botanical name and learned that its Italian common name is "pungitopo" -- a name just as interesting as butcher's broom since literally it means "mouse stinger." I have since discovered that both names come from uses the plants provided. In olden times, mature branches were bundled and wielded by butchers to clean their cutting boards. The spiny branches were also used to protect hung meat from being eaten by mice.
But, disappointingly, I learned from the booklet that the plant is good for gourmet cooking only in springtime when its tender buds are gathered to put in omelets or to use as a garnish. Aficionados also cut bunches of young shoots and boil them like asparagus. Antonio, the villa gardener, sadly confirmed that in September I was too late to savor "pungitopo" which he said grows wild on the edge of woodlands.
In case I ever get some, the booklet provided a recipe I could use for the omelet: four eggs, a handful of pungitopo buds, a clove of garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. The buds are simmered for eight minutes over a low flame before adding to the omelet when it has been started in another pan.
There are also recipes for tomatoes stuffed with puncitopo buds and spaghetti with a pungitopo sauce.
With time for broader research, I have found that the root of butcher's broom has quite a folk history. A native of southern and western Europe and also the southern United States, it was much used medicinally. Ancient physicians recommended the roots in the treatment of urinary problems. The roots and young stems also were employed in treatment of atherosclerosis, hemorrhoids and varicose veins.
Ornamentally, the branchlets are dyed and used like holly as decorations in the winter holidays. They are so popular in Italy for this purpose that the plants in some areas were declared an endangered species.
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