Many Italian immigrants who came to America in the last century were certainly disappointed when they did not find the fabled streets paved in gold. But others were surely heartened when they discovered that the endless fields of green, which both surrounded and dotted their urban habitat, contained another kind of gold – cicoria!
These hopeful immigrants, who were accustomed to a simple agrarian lifestyle, and to scarcity as well, were overjoyed when they realized they could simply walk to the nearest empty field or city park in the spring, carving knife in hand, and pluck as much of the leafy green as they could carry. Or they could drive just a few minutes out of town, where the air and ground were ostensibly less polluted, and load as much of the green gold as they could fit in their car trunks.
True, not everyone appreciates cicoria. Some despise not just the curly green, but the customs surrounding its harvest and consumption as well – rising early, working in tandem with other cicoria pickers, and explaining what you are doing and why you eat the bitter weed to strangers who come up to you in the park. For some, cicoria was simply not cool.
Cicoria or chicory comes in at least two varieties, one which sprouts lavender flowers, and the wild variety with yellow flowers English-speakers call dandelions. Cicoria is a mainstay of the “cucina povera” – traditional Italian food that is simple to prepare, is nutritious, tastes great and avoids waste. Cicoria is rich in nutrients, minerals and anti-oxidants. It was, and to a large extent, remains a staple of the central and southern Italian table; a culinary heritage which was transported to the New World.
Today, cicoria has found its way onto the menu of sophisticated chefs, and has become a fashionable “foodie” obsession available at fine restaurants and gourmet markets everywhere. Celebrity chef Mario Batali has recreated the fabled zuppa di fave secche recipe from Puglia. Cooked fava beans are pureed and added to sautéed cicoria – great over crostini. The popular puntarelle salad (dating back to the Roman Empire) consists of cicoria dressed with a vinaigrette of fresh lemon juice, olive oil and anchovy paste. In Calabria, cannellini beans are soaked overnight, cooked slowly and then the cicoria is sautéed in a pan with garlic, olive oil, peperoncini and the hearty beans.
Cicoria has attained haute-cuisine status in restaurants in New York City, Montreal and beyond. Have you ever tasted wild chicory, poached duck egg and pancetta lardoons? How about chicory, garlic, roast peppers and goat caciotta? Then there is chicory salad with walnuts and Parmesan shavings; and chicory salad with blueberries, hazelnuts and aged Manchego. The Food Network site lists scores of cicoria recipes. Does polenta-crusted pompano salad with sautéed spicy peppers, chicory and tomato oil tickle your taste buds? Have you ever sampled steamed mussels in chardonnay wine over creamy chicory and radicchio risotto? Gnocchi, pine nuts and chicory pesto, anyone? The days, not long ago, when picking cicoria was a source of embarrassment seem far behind.
Cicoria has a long and ancient history. A native plant of Western Asia, North Africa and Europe, it was cultivated by medieval monks to extract a tonic for the treatment of gallstones. Beer brewers used roasted chicory to add flavour to stouts. Bitter herbs, notably chicory, were used during the Passover Seder ceremony to symbolize the bitterness of life the Jews experienced in ancient Egypt. Cicoria is appreciated by many cultures. For Italians in North America, it remains a staple in their traditional diet, and reminds them of their origins.
Maria L. Ierfino is a Montreal writer. Her most recent book is McCord’s Quiet Rebellion, Chronicler Publishing, 2012.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 27.