The bulb of the wild hyacinth: Delicious, storied and an ancient Greek aphrodisiac, too

ImageTo the ancient Greeks and Romans, the volvos, or bulb, of the wild tassel hyacinth was an infallible remedy for the diminished sexual appetite. Indeed, faith in the hyacinth’s amatory powers was so strong that, in ancient Rome, newlyweds ate the bulbs before retiring to their nuptial bed. Today in Greece, that faith persists—it is rare that my village friends will place a plate of volvoi (plural for volvos) on the table without a wink and a nudge.

This time of year, as springtime brings warmth and flowers to Greece, the bulb’s properties may not be at their highest demand; however, it is in spring when the wild tassel hyacinth (muscari comosum) grows in profusion throughout the greening meadows and dappled shade of olive groves across the country. With a lovely fragrance and a bitter bulb, the flower’s etymology is just as bittersweet, leading us back to ancient Greece and Hyacinthus, the divine hero of Greek mythology, the beautiful lover of the god Apollo who was also loved by the West Wind, Zephyrus.

According to myth, one spring day the lovers, Apollo and Hyacinthus, tried their hands at the discus throw, each vying to outdo the other. With each try, the glittering disk flew higher and higher. Finally, the powerful Apollo gathered all his strength and let the discus fly. It rose swiftly, slicing the clouds in two. Then, it began to tumble down.

Hyacinthus ran to meet it. The discus landed, but after falling from such a great height, it bounced, striking the young man in the head. He let out a groan and died. Weeping, Apollo held his lover. Out of the blood from Hyacinthus’ wounds, mingled with the tears of Apollo, sprang the flowering hyacinth. A twist in the tale implicates Zephyrus for Hyacinthus’ death. Jealous that the beautiful young man loved Apollo rather than him, Zephyrus blew the discus off course.
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Despite the plant’s tragic beginnings, its bulb is delicious. Traditionally part of the vegetarian Lenten table, volvoi are also served year-round as meze with tsipouro, ouzo, or raki. This time of year, one can buy volvoi at the farmer’s markets in Athens. In Italy, particularly in the region of Puglia (the heel of Italy’s boot), the bulbs are very popular, finding their way into a variety of dishes and are known there as lampascioni.

Many of our neighbors in the village forage for the bulb of the wild tassel hyacinth, but since doing so takes a spade and no small amount of effort, I have only harvested them once. Even then I was bothered by the conundrum of harvesting bulbs. As my friend Hank Shaw says, to eat a bulb is to kill the plant. But one can harvest sustainably (according to Shaw the forager’s code is to take no more than a quarter of any stand of plants), so forage we did. Afterwards, we gave the bulbs to my friend Patra who roasted them in olive oil and sea salt. That night, rainy and cold for late April, we ate beside a fire in the fireplace at Patra’s, scooping up the volvoi with homemade bread, baked in a wood-fired oven. Slightly bitter and peppery, the bulbs had infused the olive oil she cooked them in with their flavor. The thought of them now makes my mouth water, they were so delicious. Along with the roasted volvoi and bread, we ate a bit of touloumotiri and, of course, drank some village wine. It was a simple and a fine meal.

The wild tassel hyacinth grows in the States too, in the Pacific Northwest and parts of the Midwest and Southeast, but if you can’t find muscari comosum in your region, pearl onions can substitute for today’s recipe, although the taste will be markedly different. (Ancient Greeks also believed that onions were aphrodisiacs. If they were right, the substitution shouldn’t affect the outcome!)
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This recipe is my attempt to translate the dish Patra made that spring night we feasted on volvoi, cheese, bread and wine. In truth, Patra used no herbs, just olive oil and sea salt. But I like the flavor of the herbs combined with the fruity olive oil and the peppery bitterness of the bulbs. The choice, of course, is yours.

Roasted Volvoi
1 lb volvoi
Enough olive oil to generously coat the volvoi in the baking pan…and then some!
Oregano, thyme or fresh rosemary, to taste
Sea salt, to taste

  1. Clean the bulbs, scoring the end of each with an cross.
  2. Place the volvoi in a saucepan, adding enough water to cover them. Bring the water to a boil and boil the bulbs for about a minute. Drain and allow to cool.
  3. Preheat the oven to 450º.
  4. Place the bulbs in a shallow baking dish large enough to hold them in one layer.
  5. Drizzle olive oil generously over the bulbs; toss to coat. Sprinkle with sea salt and herbs.
  6. Roast in a 450º oven for about 40 minutes, turning twice.

Kαλή όρεξη! (Good appetite!) And thanks, as ever, for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree.

“Mama always said there’d be days like this…”

Dearest Readers,

Please forgive my silence. I’ve been absolutely swamped these past few weeks with story deadlines, my book proposal (a new version, which my agent wants me to complete “ASAP”), my children’s school and extracurricular activities, and life in general. As a result, The Shepherd and the Olive Tree has been sorely neglected.

As have my children’s dinners. If the battery in my camera weren’t dead (also a product of neglect), I’d take a photo for you of the frozen pizza box sitting on my counter this morning–the detritus of last night’s dinner. As we were eating breakfast in the kitchen before school a few hours ago, my son laughed and pointed at the box’s lower left-hand corner. “You should post this on your blog, Mom!” he said. Beneath a photo of a man’s hands kneading pizza dough, it read, in all caps, “PRODUCT IS NOT HANDMADE.” We all laughed, understanding just how fitting a photo it would be to accompany this post–an illustration of the zaniness of our lives right now. I love that my children see the irony and humor in the fact that I’m spending my days writing about food (that is very much handmade) for my book proposal, yet I only have time to feed them frozen pizza. Ah, life as a modern-day mom.

In any case, I’m working on a new post and there is much fresh material to come, for in 35 days (who’s counting?) we leave for our summer in the village where I will be gathering many stories, photos and recipes for your delectation.

Until my next post, and always, I thank you for your interest in The Shepherd and the Olive Tree. And I ask that you please stay tuned. I won’t be serving frozen pizzas–or holding back on my posts here–for much longer.