Taste is a complex mix of sweet, sour, salty, savoury and bitter; after the extravagant indulgence of Christmas with its rich roasts, ballsy braises and plenitude of puddings January is the time to celebrate the much-neglected contributor to taste that is bitterness.
To many it is unpalatable, it is after all, the sensation that evolved to warn us away from poisonous plants. However, it also plays an important part in the sophisticated and often acquired flavours of, for example, dark chocolate, coffee and olives as well as having a beneficial effect on both digestion and health.
Perfectly timed to sooth our excesses, it is the bitter leaves of chicories that remain standing in our January winter gardens. Wild chicory grows abundantly throughout Europe, Asia, North America and North Africa. It is a member of the dandelion family (Asteraceae) and has a distinctive blue flower, a common sight on roadside verges as well as in the fields where it is grown as a forage for animals. It is the first young green leaves that can be picked in early spring when they are less bitter. Often mixed with dandelion leaves, wild chicory is delicious wilted with garlic and olive oil. Alternatively, in Greece they are used to make ‘weed pie’ or horta, a favourite in our cookery school kitchen too.
From the wild plant the cultivated chicories of endive, radicchio and puntarelle have evolved. Selected breeding and growing methods over the years has chosen various traits to create a product so different it is hard to believe they all originate from the same wild plant.
In Italy, different varieties of radicchio with its distinctive white-veined red leaves, are named after the regions from which they originate, Chioggia, Treviso and Tardivo, each having protected geographical status.
Belgian endive has densely packed cream-coloured rocket shaped leaves. It is grown underground in the dark; completely depriving the leaves of light means the green chlorophyll does not develop, they are less bitter, deliciously crisp and a pleasing pale colour.
Salads of crisp and crunchy bitter leaves teamed with citrus, seeds and nuts are refreshing and good for us and for classic perfection simply add the saltiness of anchovies. Grilling can reduce bitterness and radicchio is perfect grilled as a winter leaf vegetable. Soaking the leaves is another way of making them more palatable, this works well with puntarelle, another robust cultivated chicory that makes a delicious winter salad.
Bitterness too encourages the digestive juices to flow, preparing us for the meal ahead and classically bitter herbs are used to flavour aperitifs and digestifs such as Campari and vermouth. At Thyme our Ox Barn bartenders are creating their own botanical ‘Ox Bitters’ and ‘Thyme Tinctures’ for cocktails, the ‘salt and pepper’ in their cocktail larder.
Chicory has also been grown for its roots. Ground into a powder it is a classic substitute for coffee as well as being a rich source of inulin, a carbohydrate contained within the root. Also found in yacon, dandelion, Jerusalem artichokes and dahlia tubers (which are surprisingly edible), inulin tastes pleasantly sweet, is adored by our gut flora and metabolised by them helping them to thrive; so acting as a prebiotic, promoting a healthy gut.
On our menus in January we have the wild chicory in pride of place and are looking forward to enjoying them in all their variety and celebrating all things bitter.