Bitter leaves are not hard to swallow after all, writes
Bitter leaves aren’t hard to swallow, writes Paulette Whitney.
Igrew them first for their beauty. Treviso’s spearshaped, deep-red leaves, and bold, white veins demand admiration, and peeling away the lettuce-like outer leaves of Castelfranco to reveal a heart of white splashed with blood-red stains is more magnificent than unwrapping any gift. Grumolo radicchio, nicknamed gnome cabbage by my daughters (it looks for all the world like a cabbage hit with a shrink ray), proved its worth when I used some in table decorations for a visiting chef’s dinner, where my friend began eating the arrangements while waiting for her meal.
Then I grew them for their ease. The long, green leaves of spadona chicory resisted pests and frosts to provide us with greens through a hard winter when many other plants succumbed.
Then I grew them for the challenge. Supplying chefs is an endless pursuit of novelty. I’d read about puntarelle, its special slicing apparatus and the unique salad it’s used in, and had to master it, but getting it to produce hearts has, so far, proved impossible. It only goads me into greater effort, seeking the satisfaction of some day laying the perfect puntarelle on a chef’s pass.
Finally (and perhaps I have this rather topsy-turvy), I grew them for the flavour. It took a home-killed pig and a fire to get me addicted to bitter leaves. At first taste – if they’re not properly grown or prepared – bitter plants may seem quite awful. Bitter compounds are produced by plants precisely to protect them from being eaten, but that flavour, in many cases, means they’re good for us. Bitter plants stimulate the production of bile, making it easier for our guts to deal with rich foods such as like fatty meats. Which is how I found my gateway chicory.
It was the spring of the spadona, the long-leafed, green variety that survived a harsh winter. I’d picked a lot for market and only sold a couple of bunches – one to an elderly Italian man who shouted “Cicoria!” at me before throwing a dollar on my table and making off with a bunch. It was also the spring of pork. We’d killed some pigs and
I’d inexpertly separated the “neck” muscles (some say that pigs don’t technically have necks), the larger to cure into coppa, and the smaller pluma for quick dinners on nights such as these, when we were exhausted from a long market day.
Lighting a fire, we grilled our piece of pluma draped with slices of lardo, took it from the pan and wilted the shredded spadona in the meat juices before popping the pluma on top and placing it all by the fire to rest. The combination of fat, salt and smoke on the chicory was a revelation to me. Without the contrast of the sweet, fat-laced meat, the bitterness can be confronting, but in this context it’s magical, creating balance with the richness to leave you feeling satiated rather than overfed.
Once through that magical gateway, my addiction reached fever pitch, where it remains today. It makes me question why the flavour we pursue every day in coffee or beer can be seen as challenging to many palates when it’s in vegetable, or even amaro form. Many a disastrous night ensued for me when, in my youth, I’d buy my friends a round of Campari, which they’d refuse to drink and – waste not – I’d be compelled to finish. Now I steep bitter artichoke or olive leaves in syrups of elderberry or rhubarb to have on hand for more responsible after-dinner drinks, and have even been known to drink artichoke-leaf tea after overindulging at dinner time, its bold, unimpeded bitterness both soothing and cleansing.
It’s seemingly satisfying to eat sweet, savoury, easy food, but
I can’t imagine anyone feeling for an iceberg lettuce what I feel as
I cut into a fat palla rossa radicchio or being quite as smug after dinner as I am when I pour pet-nat into a Spritz based on my own amaro infused with bittersweet herbs from my garden. Learning to prepare, or acquiring a taste for something that challenges you? That can inspire real passion.
“I can’t imagine anyone feeling for an iceberg lettuce what I feel as I cut into a fat palla rossa radicchio.”