Long before hops plants form their long, sticky cones, the plants send up a little shoot. I picked a handful of these shoots from my dad’s hop bines last week (yes, they’re called bines, not vines). While no international price index charts the prices of vegetables, hop shoots are considered among the world’s most expensive vegetables, commanding a far higher price than prized white asparagus. (This back-of-the-envelope calculation excludes saffron, which is a crocus stigma and not a “vegetable” per se; the other contender, white truffles, are fungi.)
Hops, the bittering agent in most beers, is one of two common commercial species in the cannabaceae family—ironically, the one of lesser value. Unlike the other, marijuana, hops are considered legal and their shoots edible. In Belgium, these hopscheuten are cultivated under glass or in dark rooms, since the shoot turns green and develops a harder, rope-like consistency when it emerges outdoors.
In Elizabeth David’s 1969 essay “Bruscandoli,” collected in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, she writes about the fleeting pleasure of Italian risotto and frittata made with hop shoots, which also go by the names wild asparagus, bruscandoli, luppoli and jets de houblon. “Because they were so very much there one day and and vanished the next,” she writes, “bruscandoli became a very sharp and poignant memory.”
After hop plants become established, it’s necessary to thin their bines. A few years ago, in 2009, I called Puterbaugh Farms, a hops grower in Washington that pickles hop shoots in much the same way you’d make dilly beans. “We go out and trim the hop shoots in the spring,” Diana Puterbaugh told me. “I guess you call it a waste product.”
What’s curious is that the use of hops as a mildly bitter spring green predates hopped beers, the first record of which dates to around 822 A.D. Nearly 800 years earlier, Pliny the Elder said Italians ate the wild Lupus salictarius, although he wrote, “these may be rather termed amusements for the botanist than articles of food.”