Bitter Greens on the Prairies

I first planted cicoria (chicory) in Canada the spring after COVID hit. I have a thing for bitter greens. My husband and I were squirrelly, pacing the perimeter of our 25’ Calgary lot and pouring boiling water on the iced ground to encourage workability. We moved a shed, built a small patio, and made room for a vegetable garden in the sunniest spot in our yard. We were preparing to be survivalists maybe, saving rubber bands and cans, and making much more of our yard arable. I made my own cappuccini in the morning, learned how to make maritozzi rise (those sweet Roman buns filled with whipped cream) instead of the ubiquitous pandemic sourdough, and sat on my deck during mild flurries gazing on what was to be a veggie plot. We waited for the slow warming of spring, hauled out the concrete footing for the defunct clothes line, and amended the soil with compost. Then the glorious day arrived when I planted my chicory seeds.

I had bought them on a whim while reminiscing about travelling to Italy: in particular, those 3-hour dinners in Roma where a plate of sautéed chicory on the side of coda alla vaccinara (oxtail stew) was a perfect marriage. That season I studied the small seeds: stocky and reminiscent of an unsharpened pencil lead. Then I saw the small seedlings emerge, and was surprised to see the form of their true leaves. I had to convince my 90-year-old neighbour I wasn’t growing a patch of dandelions. Next we harvested young leaves, blanched them in a diluted beef stock, and swung them around a pan with olive oil, garlic, and peperoncino (chilli flakes). This way of preparing greens of any kind is called ripassata in Italy, due to its two-step cooking process. We ate our cicoria ripassata on the deck and swung to face each other after the first bite. Holy shit, this tastes like Rome! The sense memory brought us right back to those osterie in Testaccio, the Roman neighbourhood to the south that used to house the city’s abattoir. What a feeling. As summer grew hot, we watched the cicoria bolt and produce delicate blue flowers. How gorgeous! Growing cicoria was a continual surprise, and brought light to that dark, dark year.

In 2022 we brought my family farm’s vegetable garden back to life after more than a decade of neglect. You could fit 3 of my Calgary yards into this garden’s footprint. It is massive, and I dedicated a 70-foot row of it to bitter greens. That year I didn’t just plant Cicoria ‘Catalogna a foglie frastagliate,’ the typical kind with jagged, serrated leaves. I also sowed the puntarelle type, that staple of the Roman spring table, the shoots of which they cut into strips and toss in a dressing of anchovies. Then came blocks of radicchio. I got to practice my Italian, bending my tongue around varieties like Treviso, Verona, Palla Rossa Tardiva, and Variegato di Castelfranco. I added some endive and cime di rapa from Puglia, and my digestion-boosting row of Italian astringent leaves was complete!

I served radicchio to my extended Albertan family as a contorno (side dish) alongside roast chicken. They smiled politely, and didn’t ask for seconds. I wouldn’t say bitter greens are an innate prairie taste. I blitzed cicoria into a purée for my 1-year-old, who gobbled it up, grinning through the dark green paste smeared across her cheeks. I sent the photo to my mom, who replied, shocked, “Why would you serve those harsh things to her? Just because you like them?” My simple reply was, well, yes. I carted crates of leaves back down to Calgary, pulling up to my friends’ condos and character homes, and heaving armfuls from my truck box into their hands. This seemed to me a very pugliese scene: an average Joe playing fruttivendolo (greengrocer), an improbable amount of produce tumbling out of his trunk.

And as I watched myself become an old man from Puglia, I smiled. Perfetto. With every leaf of every plant, I was transporting myself—and all my friends and family—back to my travels in Italy. Paradoxically, with every bitter bite I was bringing a bit of la dolce vita to the Albertan prairies.

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