The problem with not living in London or Palermo, is that even with a good market, I can only find British versions of Italian produce. So the good things found in Ballaro don’t often find their way to Birmingham. We have to wait til summer for overpriced, wilting artichokes to appear fleetingly, and other things just never appear at all. Height of summer Tenerumi for instance, and in winter, the joy that is (or rather isn’t) Puntarelle.
Puntarelle is, to put it mildly, heaven. It’s very Rome, rather than Sicilian, but who cares when something tastes this good. It’s a kind of chicory – so bitter – you can feel it improving your health as you eat it. And it marries beautifully with olive oil, anchovies, acid and garlic. There’s no cooking – just some slicing, soaking in iced water and then tossing in the oily, fishy, garlicky dressing.
When you buy it (I’ve found it in posh greengrocers in London for stupid amounts of money) you’ll bring home a great big, messy, blousey head of salad. It seems terribly wasteful (especially if you’ve paid Sloane Square prices ), but the first job is to strip off the outer leaves to unearth the secret within (you can keep these, and braise them with pine nuts, for a tougher, less refined dish)
Hiding in the dense heart of your shambolic greens are some strange, paler, asparagus like shoots (proto flower heads, I’m guessing). This is the delicacy you’re looking for.
Cut them out, and then slice them in half, and then slice these halves into tagliatelle-like strips.
Now, the thing about these bitter greens, is that they can be a tad too bitter, even if you think a Negroni is the best thing in the world. So, there’s a trick. Get a bowl of iced water, and soak your sliced shoots for ten minutes, which will draw out the worst of the bitterness. Don’t leave them too long, as you don’t want to lose it completely. The fun part of this process is that the slithers curl up in the cold water, so you end up with a curly wurly bowl of crunch.
Dry them, and toss them in a dressing made from pounded anchovies, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice (or red wine vinegar if you’re feeling very Roman). I’ll leave you to judge the quantities, everyone has different levels of optimum oil/salt/garlic/acid.
It’s a simple salad; bitter, sweet, refreshing, crisp. And you get to feel super virtuous because of your healthy eating habits.
The trouble is – by the time you factor in the train ticket, and the cost of the damn thing – it becomes the world’s most decadent and idiotic salad.
So I have a plan – Franchi seeds. I have a vast allotment, some of it is already booked out for the tenerumi, but I’m going to grow some very far north Puntarelle. I have no idea how it’s going cope with being up at 52 degrees – but it’s a plan – and perhaps I can sate my love of Puntarelle and maybe even make my fortune selling the surplus to fools and their money in Mayfair.