Love at first sight and love at first bite. When it comes to Roman cuisine, who’s not totally smitten? Pizza, pasta, gelato… it’s a love affair of the senses and the good news, it doesn’t stop there! Whilst Roman carb-heavy and cheese-plenty dishes such as Carbonara, Cacio e Pepe and Supplì have quite the world-wide reputation, the city treasures a vast variety of lighter and lesser-known culinary delights, centred around the vegetable and that are just waiting to be discovered and devoured! As Italy is a nation that prides itself in eating locally, and rightly so, tucking into your favourite spread often requires waiting for the correct season but as any wise man or woman should know, patience is a virtue and the suspense is what makes the eating all the more enjoyable. As Autumn ticks on in Rome and November rolls around, the city’s teeming farmers’ markets load in their crops and the Roman people, their tummies-a-rumbling, pour in with haste with one produce on mind; it is the season of PUNTARELLE!
For those thinking “What the heck is that?” let me assure you; I was just as bemused when I first moved to the city. Ten years on however, I can confirm that this delightful little word comes up high on my vocabulary list during its in-season months of November through February. Having finally mustered my Roman R’s and double L’s, ‘Puntarelle’ rolls with ease from my tongue as I cry for “More, more, more of it please!”
Directly translating to ‘little points’, Puntarelle are the crispy, crunchy and remarkably fresh stalks of the Catalonia Chicory; a loose leafed variation of the Chicory plant with a spiky foliage reminiscent of the dandelion’s greens. They are grown with abundance in the countryside around Rome; so much so that the region of Lazio proudly pronounced them one of the 341 traditional Italian foods, eaten as it turns out since antiquity; both Ovid and Pliny giving mention to the vegetable for its outstandingly positive health benefits. The Emperor Caeser’s salad of choice, therefore, was not the mayonnaisey mess topped with fried croutons that has now rudely taken his name in vain, but instead he and the people of Ancient Rome opted for Puntarelle and dressed it with Garum; a fermented fish sauce traditional of the time. Before snubbing your nose at the notion of such a condiment, let’s give these folks of yesteryear some credit! Their recipe in the making was the forerunner to the salad of today, a trattoria’s top-seller, that gives fame and fortune to this fabulous stalk. I am talking of course about ‘Puntarelle alla Romana’, otherwise referred to as ‘Puntarelle in salsa di alici” or in my books ‘Little green curls of mouth-watering joy’!
- 8 oz Puntarelle
- 4 anchovy fillets
- 1 minced garlic clove
- 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
Do as the Romans do and toss these vitamin-rich greens in a dressing consisting of olive oil, red wine vinegar and a puree of garlic and anchovies. The sweet saltiness of the sauce softens the bitter bite of the greens, whilst the light covering retains an ideal crunch. Two components, five ingredients and ecco the simple yet oh so delicious salad is served. Yet as with all good things in life, there is a catch; preparing the stalks to their slender curled perfection is a fiddly process. Tear away the chicory’s dark leaves, strip apart the stalks, sliver the stems thin and place them into a bath of ice and water. Leave to soak for an hour or so and watch as the dance of the ‘little points’ takes place and the shoots begin to curl! A fiddly process perhaps, but for the careful cook this will only add to the satisfaction. For those in fret, fear not; the Roman markets are well stocked up with pre-prepped, curl-ready Puntarelle.
What are you waiting for? Get yourself to Rome between November and February, get cooking (and eating) and let the love affair begin!