This one with the black bryony is going to be a hit among the foreigners, I said.
Yeah, he said.
We were both wrong.
I was convinced that our chef’s new take on the indigenous and wild black bryony would be something tourists would be dying to try, but it turned out that our foreign guests are not all that adventurous. On the other hand, our local regulars are keen on such delicacies and this dish is the first one to catch their eye when looking at our menu with the new dishes that we feature on a weekly basis.
Black bryony (Lat. Dioscorea communis, in Croatian kuke, meaning ‘hooks’ because its ends are bent down) is a less fancy culinary relative of the beloved wild asparagus. It looks similar and tastes almost the same, but is almost twice cheaper in spring at the local farmers’ market. Neat, ha?
The previous paragraph pretty much sums up what I had known about black bryony before I decided to introduce you to it so I did some research and found out a few interesting things.
Safety first: only the young shoots of the plant are edible – the rest of the plant is poisonous due to saponin content. Thanks, Wikipedia. I know this is one killer introduction (pun intended), but don’t let it scare you away: black bryony is delicious when prepared right.
And how is that, you may ask. It should be cooked as soon as it is picked – so get it fresh and head straight for the stove. Wash it under running water and separate the tender upper part of the plant by bending the stem over a finger and letting it (the stem, not the finger!) snap. The tough part can either be discarded or used (in moderate quantities) to make vegetable stock. Blanch them for a couple of minutes in boiling water and you’re good to go. If you have a hard-boiled egg or two, you can prepare a simple vinaigrette and make a salad (this is the most common way black bryony is eaten in Dalmatia, the recipe can be found in my cookbook), or you you can toss them in an omelette. Personally, I skip the vinegar and just use fleur de sel and some high quality extra virgin olive oil. Its subtlety allows the bitterness of the asparagus/black bryony to shine through.
The linguist in me cannot resist the urge to share one more piece of trivia with you: in France black bryony is called ‘herbe aux femmes battues’ which translates as ‘grass for battered women’. This lovely name is due to wraps made with the grated root and applied on contusions and sprains.
But let’s get back to kitchen talk. Except for egg salads and omelettes, the shoots can also be used for risottos (make it extra creamy, with a bit of mascarpone), pasta and soups. Or, if you’re feeling creative like Jadran Tutavac, our chef in Pantarul, you can make a hearty dish using just a handful of black bryony. The dish I mentioned at the beginning could be classified under comfort food. Bacon? Check. Potatoes? Check. Jadran basically took a bunch of blanched black bryony and combined it with roasted potatoes, crispy bacon, a thick creamy black bryony sauce and put an egg on top. Trust me, the result is to die for so in this case, locals vs. tourists – 1:0.