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Eruca vesicaria (L.)Cav. 1802
pronounced: er-ROO-kuh vess-ee-KAR-ee-uh
(Brassicaceae – the mustard family)
synonym: Eruca sativa Mill. 1768
pronounced: er-ROO-kuh sat-EYE-vuh
common name: Rocket
Eruca is a Latin word, the name used by Pliny the Elder (23–79) for a leafy vegetable, possibly a type of cabbage; vesicaria is also Latin, from vesicarius, belonging to the bladder. In the synonym, sativa is from the Latin sativus, cultivated.
Rocket is a native of the Mediterranean region, from Morocco and Portugal east to Lebanon and Turkey. It is an annual plant growing from 20–100 cm in height. The leaves are deeply pinnately lobed, with 4–10 small lateral lobes and a larger terminal lobe. The flowers are 2–4 cm in diameter, arranged in a corymb with the typical Brassicaceae flower structure; the petals are creamy white, often with purple veins, and the stamens are yellow; the sepals are shed soon after the flower opens. The fruit is a pod up to about 3.5 cm in length with an apical beak, and containing several edible seeds.
Rocket seed germinates readily, and the plant needs to be grown rapidly, and well watered. If it becomes dry or starts to bolt, the leaves usually become unpleasantly bitter. The plant has been grown in the Mediterranean since Roman times, when its seeds were used as an aphrodisiac. Up until the 1990s the plant was usually collected in the wild and was not cultivated on a large scale; but since then it has had a remarkable rise in popularity, and is now widely cultivated.
It has a rich peppery taste, and has a particularly strong taste for a leafy green. It is mostly used in salads, mixed with other greens in a mesculin, but it is also cooked as a vegetable or used raw with pasta and meats in northern Italy and in western Slovenia. In Italy it is often used in pizzas; it is added just before the baking period ends so that it does not wilt.
On the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples, a liqueur called rucolino is made from the plant. This is a local specialty, and, like other liqueurs, is drunk in small quantities after the meal.
In Brazil it is widely used, both raw in salads, and mixed with Mozzarella cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.
In Egypt the plant is often eaten for breakfast with ful medames, a traditional Egyptian breakfast made with fava beans and usually served with a fried egg and pita bread.
If rocket is boiled or steamed, it quickly loses its pungency, but acquires a rather subtle flavour that fits well with pasta or risotto dishes, although a great deal of rocket is required to produce the flavour. The heating period should be kept as brief as possible.
The seeds may be pressed to produce a semi-drying oil used as a substitute for rape-seed oil (canola), and for lighting, as it burns with very little soot.
Photographs taken 2012, Picnic Bay
Page last updated 30th November 2016