Bit­ter leaves are not hard to swal­low af­ter all, writes

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - OCT -

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.”

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