Askolymbri, the crunchy roots of the common golden thistle (Scolymus hispanicus, or Spanish oyster thistle) braised with lamb and finished with an airy avgolemono (egg and lemon sauce), was probably one of the most unusual and rare delicacies we sampled during this year's marvelous Worlds of Flavor Conference at Greystone, in Napa. Chef Yiannis Tsivourakis from Crete, representing the local organization that promotes the products, healthy traditional diet, and sustainable development of the island, decided to cook this foraged and peculiar plant from Crete. The praise was unanimous, but the common golden thistle was certainly uncommon to most participants – it is hardly known, let alone available, anywhere else in Greece, and certainly not in the US or anyplace else in the world.
But scolymus has been with us since antiquity. Theophrastus, the 4th c. BC philosopher and botanist, and Dioscorides, the first c. AD author of a 5-volume encyclopedia about herbal medicine, both praise scolymus' flavor and its health-promoting properties. Dioscorides advises the reader to "roast scolymus as we do asparagus," and no doubt it will taste heavenly! The thorny plant with the bright yellow flowers is quite common in the Mediterranean countryside, but it is difficult to gather and to peel, to preserve the integrity of the fleshy root and some of its young shoots. How widespread is the common golden thistle? According to Wikipedia, scolymus is "very popular in almost every province of Spain, where it's usually eaten in stews during spring time. It is also used in salads, soups and with scrambled eggs in Andalusia where it is called 'tagarnina'. In the sixteenth century in Salamanca the washed young plants used to be eaten with their root, either raw or in stews with meat." But, looking at the pictures that accompany the Wiki entry, it seems to me that the Spanish scolymus is quite different from the one of Crete, and a distinction must be made.
Askolymbri are either pickled and served as a side dish or meze with raki, the local strong, grappa-like moonshine of Crete, or braised with kid. This was the dish chef Tsivourakis aspired to prepare, bringing to Napa a suitcase-full of vacuum-packed scolymus roots from Crete. However, he had to substitute lamb for the kid, as it was not easy to get milk-fed goat in California this time of the year, and his suitcase could accommodate and appease US border authorities only so much. The resulting dish he served to the vast crowd of the conference's participants was unbelievably delicious, a revelation even to those of us who have had it in the past, prepared by some of the most accomplished home-cooks of Crete!
By a strange coincidence, not at all considered by the team from Crete, wild foraged plants are the rage these days, as we have seen repeatedly from recent pieces in various food magazines and newspaper supplements. Jane Kramer's extensive and amusing account about Italian and Danish foraged plants in The New Yorker's yearly food issue is particularly enlightening. Unfortunately, though, Greece – ubiquitous, though under threat by Italy, in economic and business headlines – is absent from most recent accounts of wild, foraged plants that make their way to the table. The greens and roots we have painstakingly gathered and love to cook since antiquity are hardly mentioned, overshadowed by the wonderful creations of very talented chefs like Noma's René Redzepi. Based in Copenhagen, Redzepi has struggled for years in his quest for a distinctively Danish cuisine, and he decided finally to base his dishes on wild Nordic seashore plants. I like to think that his Balkan roots and his ancestor's traditional use of foraged greens of all kinds played an important role in the brilliant dishes he continues to invent.
Returning to Crete and scolymus, the menacing-looking but delicious thorn that needs careful preparation in order to become edible, it is interesting to reflect upon an amusing report the French traveler J.P. de Tournefort included in the account of his visit to Crete during the early 18th century. He writes that the islanders seemed to thrive on foraged plants and roots while grazing donkeys starved, as there were hardly any greens left on the hills and fields for them to eat…