Although rocket is my favourite salad vegetable, I have never bothered to learn anything about it.
Indeed, I had always supposed that its botanical name was rucola, an erroneous supposition, for it is Eruca sativa.
Eruca is the Latin name for the plant and sativa means ‘cultivated’ as distinct from wild rocket –
Eruca vesicaria - that latter part of this name meaning ‘bladder’ because of the shape of the inflated pods that follow the flowers.
Eruca sativa, like Eruca vesicaria, is native to the shores of the Mediterranean, and is a member of the Brassica family, named after its best-known member, the cabbage.
It is actually very similar to lettuce and is used nowadays as a salad vegetable, which is how I invariably use it.
In point of fact – as I learned recently – its widespread use is relatively recent for, although it has been grown in the Mediterranean area since Roman times, it was usually gathered from the wild and was very seldom cultivated.
However, my naïve misunderstanding about its botanical name may be explained to some extent by the fact that the Veneto region of Italy is the source of much of the rocket we enjoy in Europe, although the plant is grown in cultivation nowadays in a great many temperate countries worldwide, including North America, northern Europe and India.
Rocket is an annual plant, its entire life-cycle being completed in a single year and is grown primarily as a leaf vegetable, although the flowers, young seed pods and mature seeds are all edible.
Curiously, I am always initially surprised to read about flowers on plants like rocket, a surprise that immediately gives way to a sort of embarrassment with the realisation the without flowers there would be no seed.
It thrives best on dry, disturbed ground and the leaves are enjoyed for their rich, peppery taste, which is unexpectedly strong for a leaf vegetable.
In northern Italy, as I know, it is often used in pizzas – being added as the pizzas come out of the oven so that the leaves do not simply dry up and wilt – and is cooked as a strong-tasting green vegetable.
Travel south from the Veneto to the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples and you will find a digestif – an alcoholic drink enjoyed at the end of a meal to aid the digestive process – called rucolino which is made from rocket, whose common Italian name is rucolo.
Here in the United Kingdom, we call it garden rocket or simply rocket and in American English it is commonly known as eruca, rocket salad or arugula.
Rocket grows well in arid conditions and finds favour as a crop in parts of the world with poor rainfall. Naturally, human ingenuity seeks to find uses for a plant that can be easily grown locally and if you travel to Egypt and you may find rocket on your breakfast table and as an accompaniment to seafood dishes at lunchtime and for dinner.
Go east to India to find taramira oil, otherwise known as jamba oil, which is pressed from the seeds of Eruca sativa and is used as salad oil, as cooking oil and as a pickling medium.
On the basis of ‘waste not, want not’ the seed cake which is the inevitable product of oil production is fed to animals.
And on the theme of ‘waste not, want not’ here are some sentences from an advertisement I found on the Internet. “You might have frizzy, coarse, dull and lifeless hair or you might even be suffering from hair loss, thinning hair and or premature greying. You might have tried everything in a desperate attempt to revitalize your hair but with no permanent results. Well this ends here today because Mira hair oil gives you longer, thicker, silkier, and more manageable hair in as little as 15 days!”
And Mira hair oil – Taramira oil. Yes, rocket makes your hair grow – but, as ever, no warranty is offered regarding this claim!