The existence of edible hyacinth bulbs was unknown to me until the end of last year. The first time I found out about them was during a late evening dinner at a Cretan restaurant where the appetizer menu simply stated ‘bulbs’ (βολβοί) as one of their dishes. I can never resist trying out foods that I don’t know and up until that point I hadn’t really ever given bulbs as food much thought – onions and garlic being the exception, I suppose. You guessed it, we just had to order this mystery dish and to my surprise it was indeed a small plate full of tiny, shiny, bulbs that arrived at our table. The bulbs had been pickled and were crunchy, slightly salty and bitter, and very sour – all you ever really want from a good pickle!
After doing some online research afterwards, I found out these edible bulbs are probably tassel-, or wild grape hyacinth bulbs muscari comosum (not to be confused with regular hyacinths, by the way). In Mediterranean Vegetables: A Cook’s ABC of Vegetables and Their Preparation in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa with More than 200 Authentic Recipes for the Home Cook (The Harvard Common Press, 2001), Clifford A. Wright specifies that:
The edible part of this bulbous perennial is the bulb, which has a slightly bitter flavor. Boiled grape hyacinth is popular in Greece and Southern Italy; one particular variety (that some taxonomists classify as the same thing as M. neglectum) […] is M. recemosum (or racemosum) (176)
Wright further elaborates on the popularity of edible bulbs in classical times:
Hyacinth bulbs have long been popular as food in Greece. In classical times, Chrysippus, in his book On the Good, as reported by Athenaeus, tells us of a maxim that these bulbs figure in: “In the winter season, a bulb-and-lentil soup, oh me, oh my! For bulb-and-lentil soup is like ambrosia in the chilly cold” (176)
Turns out these edible bulbs have been much appreciated since classical times and I even read that they were considered to be an aphrodisiac! Unsurprisingly, then, these bulbs have been prepared in various ways ever since: they are eaten in salads, boiled in soups and stews with lentils, meat, or fish, or simply pickled and eaten as a snack like the ones we tried. While the taste of the raw bulb itself is very bitter – a flavor not at all that popular with many people – a lot of that bitterness is removed by a repeated boiling and rinsing process before the actual pickling, or stewing process.
Now, I’ve always loved a good pickle and my boyfriend and I have recently developed an interest in pickling and fermenting stuff at home (thanks to René Redzepi and David Zilber’s The Noma Guide to Fermentation that came out at the end of last year (2018) and was immediately purchased by us). When I recently recognized the little bulbs in their raw and covered-in-dirt natural state at the local farmer’s market, it seemed like a good opportunity to add another pickle to our slowly growing pickle collection. I mean, can one ever have enough pickles? I think not.
Despite being such a well-loved ingredient in the past, it seems like these bulbs have lost a little bit of their popularity nowadays, as the market vendor was quite pleased when we pointed at the bulbs and he expressed his surprise that “young people knew about and were buying ‘bulbs’”. We returned home with a kilogram of bulbs and a bit of a proud and smug feeling because of the vendor’s compliments. However, since the bulbs are not as common anymore, I couldn’t really find a lot of information on how to properly prepare them… at least not in English.
Now, I do know how to pickle vegetables and roots, but I wasn’t quite sure on how to deal with these bulbs. Do you put them in the brine fresh and raw, or do they need to be boiled? And what is in the brine exactly? Why are they excreting this slimy goo after cutting into them and how do I make it go away? How to decrease that incredibly bitter taste (really, don’t try them raw! I did that for you so you don’t have to!)? Since I had so many questions, I asked my boyfriend to ask our friend Yanna from Crete about how these bulbs are prepared traditionally, as she has a lot of knowledge about food and would probably know how to prepare them… and she did indeed! She even double-checked with her mother to be totally sure about the process. Following Yanna and her mother’s description of how they usually prepare the bulbs I was able to write down the guidelines and tips below (with only a few adjustments to the cooking times since my bulbs were relatively large) – thank you Yanna!
Pickled Volvoi / Βολβοί Τουρσί (Pickled Hyacinth Bulbs)
- 1kg edible wild tassel-, or grape hyacinth bulbs (muscari comosum)*
- 1.5 tablespoons coarse sea salt
- 500ml white wine vinegar (or enough to cover the bulbs)
- 120ml good quality virgin olive oil (or enough to create a thin seal over the bulbs and vinegar)
- *these are a particular type of hyacinth bulbs, not to be confused with regular hyacinths you'd grow in the garden
MethodNote: Don't be too alarmed by the preparation time above; it includes cleaning the bulbs and (hands-off) soaking them for 5 hours.
- Obviously, you start with cleaning the bulbs very well and peeling off the outer layer. Cut off some of the top of the bulb (the pointy end) and cut off the little roots at the bottom.
- Cut a small cross at the root base of each little bulb.
- Place the bulbs in a large bowl filled with cold water for 4 – 5 hours to get rid of some of the sliminess and bitterness.
- After soaking the bulbs for some hours, drain the bulbs and place them in a large pot filled with fresh, cold water. Bring bulbs in water to a boil over medium heat. When the water is boiling continue boiling for 5 more minutes. Reduce the boiling time if your bulbs are very small.
- Drain the water from the pot and quickly rinse the bulbs under cold running water.
- Place the bulbs back into the pot and refill the pot with fresh, cold water. Repeat the previous boiling process once more. Depending on how bitter you like the bulbs, you can repeat the boiling process a third, or even fourth time. The more you boil and rinse, the less bitter they get, but don’t overcook the bulbs as they might fall apart.
- After the final boiling round, drain the hot water and rinse the bulbs again under cold running water to get rid of the bitter water and to cool them down.
- Put the boiled bulbs in a glass jar and sprinkle the salt in between them. Fill the jar with the white wine vinegar until all the bulbs are submerged. Finally, seal off the bulbs and vinegar with a layer of olive oil to keep oxygen from getting to them.