From an American president who famously told his country that having loathed broccoli all his life, he’d decided it would never be on White House menu’s for as long as he stayed in his Oval House. The broccoli farmers of America came together and went beserk - they began trucking tonne upon tonne of their divisive greens to DC. A few days later the story was off the front pages.
But broccoli’s inherent ability to divide, almost like no other food, dates back decades if not centuries – none the more so than in Italy where it has reduced many young wives to tears as they attempt to scale the heights of reproducing their husband’s Mama’s method. The famous dish is made with Cime di Rapa (Pugliese name) or Friarielli (Naples-Campagna).
I had this confirmed only yesterday by my friend Jo Wennerholm, she of Roman Cook School fame and mentioned in my despatches just a few days ago.
I’d been to see Antonio in his delicatessen (actually a salumeria, but he inherited the name when he bought the shop from the original Gennaro). Gennaro was old school and he’d figured nobody would understand salumeria, whereas the German name ‘delicatessen’ would suggest exotic, smart and above all ‘foreign’. Delicat-essen is two words lashed together – delicate and ‘essen’ meaning eat. Remember that next time you stop at a back wall counter in a supermarket, emblazoned no doubt with a large faux-50s neon sign screaming ‘Deli’ – the New Yorkers’ take on delicatessen.
Anyway, Antonio was very excited – he pointed to a traditional wooden vegetable box full of squeaky fresh greens that was at my feet as I sipped my sweet espresso. Just in this morning – picked in ‘my country’ yesterday, he promised. ‘My country’ means Puglia, not Italy, because to this day, most Italians have remained fiercely regional, accepting the national title only when it comes to football, motorsport, etc.
I took some notes about how best to prepare these beautiful green leaves at £3.99 a kilo. It had to be with Orecchiette (literally ‘little ears’), the shape rooted in Puglia where the pasta is heavier and they specially like it ‘al dente’ in the absolute sense – still hard in the mouth to you and me.
I double checked his recipe with Jo in Rome – and she confirmed the many tales of domestic tension brought upon young wives across Italy where their husbands were raised in Puglia – where Bari is the epicentre for farming cime di rapa.
It’s not unknown for people to source their cime di rapa only from the Bari area where the soil and climate are said to be near perfect for this crop, picking up packs of orecchiette on the way. Maybe salty sea air helps – like the wonderful cauliflowers grown along the Kent coast, the potatoes around Le Touquet and more.
Cime di Rapa is not so much the food of the Slow Food Ark. It is food of the people. My nose was twitching – something new for Blue Collar Gastronomy.
We largely followed the classic recipe of trimming and chopping the leaves, stems too and cooking it in with the pasta in a big pan. Plenty boiling water with a good couple of finger-fulls of the ’grosso’ Italian sea salt we keep just for pasta. Drained, we then turned it in sautéed finely chopped onion and smoked pancetta. The garlic and anchovy option would not have found its way onto Tom’s plate, let alone into his mouth – forget the chilli flakes too. That’s for grown ups in our home.
We’ll also make a garlic and anchovy dressed, warm salad of this brassica, entirely new to us, cime di rapa next time we see it - in the style of puntarelle which we’ve only once found in London and it was too floppy to buy. All the soaking in the world won’t bring new life into greens that have passed their time.
I’m sure you know it, but here’s a reminder about brassica’s - the greener the leaf the healthier the vegetable – it’s just the natural tonic our bodies need at this time of year.
There’s a link in this discovery to the piece about my Wish List for 2012 – and it came about quite below my radar. Wonder what’s next and hope I’ll be listening.
PS: Good humoured belly laughs all round in New York this week when a restaurant critic raved about fresh-made pasta he’d tasted that was ‘perfectly al dente’. The roof fell in on the guy – using culinary terms unadvisedly is to be on dangerous quick sand. Copy writers do it all the time and their work hangs around for all to giggle at – like the ’Farmer’s Market Soup – Inspired by Farmer’s Markets’ we saw today. Evocative no – meaningless yes. Note bene.