This alien-looking flower is a tassel hyacinth (Muscari comosum), a common wildflower in Italy. The plants grow to about 30cm tall and have striking tufts of upright violet flowers. Tassel hyacinths are currently growing abundantly in our olive grove.
Tassel hyacinth bulbs are edible and are known as lampascioni, although they are also referred to as cipollini (little onions). The bulbs look similar to shallots and have a bittersweet flavour. They are particularly popular in Puglia, where they are considered a local delicacy, and were eaten by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who attributed to them both stomach settling and aphrodisiac qualities.
Lampascioni demonstrate the creativity of cucina povera – they can be sourced for free, but require long and elaborate preparation to transform them into something delicious. Once the bulbs have been thoroughly cleaned of soil they need to be peeled (this is apparently an unpleasant task as the bulbs ooze a sticky goo), then soaked in water for several days to remove their bitter flavour (the water should be changed regularly). The bulbs are then boiled in vinegar / vinegar and water until soft. They can be used in cooking but are often preserved sott’olio and served as an antipasto.
Apparently they should be harvested in late winter/early spring, when the first leaves appear. Since ours are already blooming it’s too late to dig them up, but next year we’ll be looking out for their first shoots.