Cicoria is bitter. Like spinach that’s lost a lawsuit. It’s also tangy, slightly metallic, wild and grassy tasting. The vegetable equivalent of a frolic in a field with a handsome heavy metal drummer who forages and writes poetry in his spare time. There’s also sweetness lurking in the serrated leaves and plump stem, some say spiciness too. But it’s the bitterness that prevails, and it’s for this reason I love cicoria. Which isn’t really surprising given how much I like bitter in my pint glass, my carmine coloured aperitivo, my amaro, my marmalade, my salad, my chocolate, my coffee, my life.
Unaccustomed and unqualified as I am, I going to try to put cicoria into some sort of biological and historical context! I’ll keep it brief I promise. Then we can proceed as usual! You know the routine, I ramble on about running away to Italy and my tedious existential crisis, detail the Roman meal during which I first I ate cicoria and describe how I succumbed to the advances of the man at the next table – eat, pay, shove – before giving you a recipe.
The cicoria I’m talking about, the dark-green, narrow-leaved shoot above, is a variety of the genus Cichorium intybus called Dentarella or – for less tongue twisting - Italian dandelion or Cutting chicory. It looks, as you’ve probably noticed, a little like an oversized dandelion with its glossy, slightly serrated leaves. Other varieties of this genus you might be familiar with are puntarelle, deep-red radicchio or the milky white bulbs of witloof we British call chicory. Although related, cicoria is not to be confused with endive, curly endive (called chicory in the US), chicoreè frisèe or escarole. Baffled? I know! This is a topic beset by considerable confusion.
Cicoria is the cultivated relative of cicoria selvatica or wild chicory, a food foraged and favored since Antiquity. Wild cicoria still thrives in parks, lay-bys and the undulating countryside surrounding the Eternal city. This interview with Sarah May makes for lovely listening for the cicoria curious amongst you.
In Rome it’s still not unheard-of to find a rogue market stall with an heap of foraged cicoria selvatica! Wild tangled greens: primitive, savage and reeking of another time. But these days you’re most likely to find cultivated cicoria, like the bagful at the top of this post, cicoria as bouncy, unruly and gloriously green as a classroom of five-year olds after a sugary snack and a lesson painting pictures of grass.
Modern Romans, even tiny ones, covet and consume cicoria as passionately as their forefathers, growing, collecting, buying and eating it in enormous quantities. More often than not it’s blanched or boiled – which soothes the bitterness – drained scrupulously and then sautéed or ripassata in olive oil, garlic and possibly chilli: cicoria in padella. It’s then eaten as a contorno (vegetable side dish) or piled generously on warm pizza bianca.
And the meal? It was nearly eight years ago at a small, idiosyncratic trattoria in Testaccio called Augustarello. A trattoria that has recently reclaimed its rightful position as my favorite place to eat in Rome. Sitting at one of the dozen or so tables in this tiny locale with its frosted windows (to keep prying eyes out) and its bold open kitchen (to allow prying eyes in,) I first ate a dish of cicoria in padella.
There was no epiphany or foodquake, just a glistening tangle of dark-green cicoria: tangy, slightly metallic, wild, grassy and a beautifully bitter balance to the citrus tinged artichoke and tonnarelli cacio e pepe I’d just eaten and the sweet torta della nonna that was to follow. There was sour, salty, unami, bitter and sweet and Rachel was – unsurprisingly – sated and (extremely) replete. I was also cicoria convinced and converted.
Then later that summer in Apulia – the high heel of Italy’s boot – in the company of my love and his motley crew, I ate a plate of Fave e cicoria, an iconic, poor and simple combination bourne out of necessity and very good taste. The fave (broad beans) in question were peeled and dried fave, or fave secche, another food from antiquity, ivory coloured slivers of beans, like misshapen tiddlywinks.
The fave had been soaked, drained and simmered idly until they’d collapsed into a soft, soupy mush, a pale puree reminiscent of chickpeas, chestnuts and white beans. Fave too have a discreet bitterness about them. It’s a pleasing bitterness though, which compliments their soft, floury and nutty nature and elevates it into something particular and delicious. The cicoria - sweeter and plumper than its Roman cousin – was simply boiled, drained and dressed with local oil.
The plate, half fave-half cicoria, half ivory-half green, half-elemental humus-half bittersweet leaves anointed with golden extra virgin olive oil, seemed, on that hot and heavy night near Leece, a near perfect plate.
This is an extremely simple recipe, but one that requires good ingredients and practice, especially when it comes to getting the consistency of the fave right. They should be soupy really and eaten with a spoon. I for one, still need practice. Bread and wine are important here – aren’t they always – as is excellent olive oil. Now about that frolic!
Fave e cicoria
- 500 g fave (dried broad beans)
- 1 kg cicoria (or other bitter greens: cavolo nero, dandelion or leafy chicory)
- olive oil
Soak the fave in plenty of cold water for 8 hours or overnight.
Drain and rinse fave. Put fave in a pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Skim any white foam what rises to the surface. Lower the flame and simmer fave for about an hour or until they are very soft, tender and have collapsed into a thick mush. The consistency should be that of a very thick soup: dense and creamy but still fluid and spoonable. You may have to add a little more water. Season generously with salt.
While the fave are cooking soak the cicoria in several changes of water, discarding any wilted or bruised leaves and trimming away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the cicoria in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to its leaves, cover the pan and cook over a medium flame until it has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 – 8 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the cicoria.
Drain the cicoria and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible. Warm some olive oil in a saute pan – with a clove of garlic if you wish – and add the cicoria and a pinch of salt. Stir and turn the cicoria in the oil until each leaf is glistening.
Serve a pile of cicoria either beside or over a generous serving of fave with a little of your best extra virgin olive oil poured over the top. Serve with bread or toast and wine.