A favourite vegetable dish here in Rome is cicoria, which of course means chicory. When the guy on our fruit and veg stall on the market said it was good, I bought a bunch last week, and decided to cook it up. Raw, in salads, it’s very bitter and not unlike dandelion leaves, a classic of free foraged food. It looks similar too.
One classic, basic way it’s served here in Rome ripassata – cooked down in olive oil, with some garlic and a little chili. Reading up on preparation methods got me thinking, and led me down an interesting path of leafy revelations.
So, the cicoria I bought was leaf chicory, or common chicory. To clarify slightly considering the various international names, in Latin it’s Cichorium intybus. To run with the Latin name for a mo, its genus is Cichorium, the family is Asteraceae – yep, that’s the Aster, daisy family – which includes Bellis perennis, the common daisy found in a million British garden lawns, as well as such popular domestic flowers as Leucanthemum vulgare, the oxeye daisy. And, yes, Taraxacum officinale – the common dandelion. (Which, incidentally, gets its English name from “dent-de-lion”, French for “tooth of the lion”, and is basically the same in Italian – dente di leone. The funnier French name, meanwhile, is “pissenlit” – “piss-the-bed”).
So yeah, no wonder raw common chicory leaves taste like dandelion leaves. The similarity is particularly marked if you get cicoria del campo, aka cicoria selvatica – the wild variety of Cichorium intybus, where the leaves – and flavour – are fairly indistinguishable from dandelion leaves. In the US, the leaves of Taraxacum officinale are eaten and known as “dandelion greens”, though I’ve also heard this term used for chicory, especially wild Cichorium intybus. Taxanomically, chicory, dandelion, lettuce and even salsify are not only all members of the Asteraceae family, but are also members of the Cichorieae Tribe.
Perhaps more interesting, however (if you’re a food obsessive with a passing interest in taxonomy that is), is the fact that both endive (ie Belgian endive, aka witlof or witloof) and radicchio (aka red chicory), are are cultivated varietals of Cichorium intybus. Which they bear no resemblance to, at least not in the forms you see them on the market. Though the taste is so similar – basically bitter – that the relationship becomes clear.
Also, what is commonly known as endive in some Anglophone countries, is also another chicory, another member of the Asteraceae family: Cichorium endivia.
It’s cultivated in two main forms, the first of which I’ve always known as frisée, or frisée lettuce in the UK, when it’s not a lettuce (genus: Lactuca) it’s a chicory (Cichorium). The French call it chicorée frisée, in the US curly endive, while here in Italy it’s called scarola riccia (“curly”). Cichorium endivia crispum.
The other version is Cichorium endivia latifolia – broad-leaved, which is also known as escarole (French) or indivia scarola here in Italy. I don’t even know what we call it in the UK. Probably just “that lettuce”, pointing or picking. We’re sophisticated like that.
Here in Rome (and other parts of Italy), another popular seasonal vegetable is puntarelle. You will see curly strips of this green in markets and restaurants for a long season from autumn through the winter. It’s also chicory: Cicoria di catalogna (Catalan chicory) or cicoria asparago. Though the common Italian name is cuter – puntarelle means “little points”, or “little tips”. I’m not 100% sure on this one, but I believe it’s just another cultivated varietal of Cichorium intybus.
Also, the coffee substitute made with chicory root also uses a variety of Cichorium intybus: Cichorium intybus var. sativum. It has long white roots that look not unlike fellow Cichorieae Tribe member black salsify, Scorzonera hispanica.
A few months later (1 Oct 2012 to be exact). Here’s another lovely variety of radicchio that they’re selling on the market. It’s like a lovely little pink-flecked lettuce. But it’s not a lettuce! I can’t remember the Italian name for its just now, but will add it when someone reminds me.