Winter salad… or Puntarelle (Catalonian chicory)
It was early February and it was raining… but it was Rome. My daughter and I bundled-up against the chill and, while attempting to squeeze together under a single, pink polka dot umbrella, crossed the city to Piperno, a cucina romana since 1860. Warmed by the coziness of the place, a glass of robust Montepulciano and the general chatter that exuded conviviality, we settled into the meal. Yet as often happens when empty bellies meet such an environment, our eyes began to survey what was arriving at nearby tables. At one an elegant couple was clearly enjoying a salad the likes of which we had never seen. Corkscrew curls of green, some a feathery pale green, others the intensity of a spring meadow, filled a bowl, a few tumbling onto the table. Our questioning stares paid off in an unexpected and much appreciated way. A bowl of puntarelle was ceremoniously set before us with the compliments – and pride – of the Roman couple. Why pride? Simple. Puntarelle, or cicoria di catalonga, is a green particular to the province of Latina in the region of Lazio in which Rome is situated.
At the time, I didn’t think too much about the spiraling tendril shape of puntarelle. True, I delighted in the arabesques of coiled chicory shoots but I was even more captivated by puntarelle’s slightly bitter taste so perfectly balanced by the saltiness of a dressing laced with anchovy. On a recent walk through Rome that changed when I stumbled into one of Rome’s small open-air markets. Suddenly something that I had given little thought commanded my attention: puntarelle curliques and spirals! Reaching into a bucket of cicoria di catalonga soaking in water, a young woman extracted a stalk, gave it a hearty shake then proceeded to first shove then pull the shoots through a screen mesh. The effect was like that of running a ribbon down the blade of a pair of scissors. It curled… quite elegantly.
In the 16th century, puntarelle, like other greens, was considered a food fit for the lower classes. Like beans and root vegetables, it – in fact, all types of lettuces – was a product of the earth and therefore was deemed appropriate to the digestive systems of those who tilled the soil. (Things of the air were the privileged preserve of the noble classes. Delicate little birds, like ortolon, were the proper fare for princes and popes!) Northern Europeans venturing south, found the Italian penchant for eating raw vegetables – especially salad greens – not only odd but base to the point of being fit for beasts alone. Writing to the noted Bolognese physician and naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi, Costanzo Felici da Piobbico (1525?-1585), a botanist and fellow physician, observed that “what is called salad, a common food typical – as the Germans say – to gluttonous Italians” is said to have been “stolen” from the feed of animals.” In his “Lettera sulle insalate,” Costanzo would go on to become, as Laura Gianetti states, the first to stage “a heroic defense of salad.”
The presumed gastronomic sensitivity of the aristocracy was not the only strike against raw greens like puntarelle. In general, salad carried an assortment of sexual connations. In the 1550 edition of Andrea Alciati’s “Emblemata” we come across “A Charm Against Love”:
“The Cyprian goddess wrapped in lettuce leaves the lifeless [body of her beloved] Adonis, gored in the groin by the savage tusk [of a wild boar]. For this reason, lettuce deadens the procreative field even more than the aphrodisiac rocket (or the peppery green commonly called arugula) can stimulate it.”
Fifteen years earlier, Francesco Maria Molza (1489-1544) celebrated salad in “a playful poem imbued with sexual and erotic meaning.” Actually, it was salad dressing that expressed the full expanse of Molza’s humor. Eating sald seasoned with salt was analogous to having same-sex intercourse. Boring, in Molza’s opinion. Spicing things up with oil and vinegar offered greater sensorial pleasure!
By the time Bartolomeo Scappi wrote “The Art and Craft of the Master Cook,” 1570, the fortune of salad was changing. There are instructions for preparing several variations of a thick soup of chicory with meat broth, but there is also mention of elegant salads featuring chicory, lettuce, cooked onions, carrots and alexander shoots. Since Scappi describes a salad served to nobles in November – the very month when puntarella becomes plentiful – one wonders if the curled chicory shoots made their way to the tables of the landed gentry.
Because Scappi did not leave us a recipe for puntarelle– although he mentions sugar as an ingredient to be added to the oil and vinegar of salad dressing – I offer the following as one that is about as authentic as you can get! But first a quick aside. Aretino, famed for his humorously provocative “instruction” manual on the art of whoring (“arte puttanesca”), 1534, also noted the use of sugar on salad. Recalling her youthful sexual exploits, the aged prostitute Nannstates, “And as long as his lust for me lasted, we even put sugar on our salads!”