Helichrysum is an evergreen plant that grows in the Mediterranean area. It is a powerful anti-inflammatory and has been used for centuries to fight stomach cramps, colds and coughs. Florentines add this Mediterranean herb to vegetables and meats to give them a spicy kick.
Helichrysum (in Italian, elicrisio or elicriso) used to be a common ingredient in Florentine cooking. Although it has become increasingly hard to find in dishes served at restaurants in Florence, it still persists in Tuscan peasant cuisine. You’re likely to find it at osterias and trattorias in the Florentine countryside, particularly in Chianti. Here, helichrysum grows wild and it is used to give dishes a wonderful spicy aroma. I would describe its taste as reminiscent of curry, with a floral, bitter finish.
I usually buy dried helichrysum at the Piazza Santo Spirito Sunday market, where there are a few fabulous spice stands, including the one owned by Pierre Cusseau. He is a great connoisseur of herbs and spices and was the one who introduced me to the wonders of elicrisio. He always recommends to try the helichrysum he grows and dries on roasted potatoes. Just cut a few potatoes into 1-inch chunks. Sprinkle with coarse salt and black pepper and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Place in a baking pan and roast in a 220°C/428° F hot oven for 40 minutes. Remove from oven and add helichrysum. Toss and return the pan to oven and roast until the potatoes are tender and beginning to brown.
Helichrysum has an intense flavor and I like to add it to slow-braised sausages in place of fennel seeds. Traditional Florentine recipes also suggest its use in roasted meat and sautèed mushroom dishes. Add it to stews, soups and casseroles if you want to try authentic Florentine country cooking.