Given that puntarelle are usually eaten raw, dressed in a vinaigrette, and topped with chopped anchovy, you’d be forgiven for thinking them a summer plant. If you are eating them in July however, they’ve almost certainly been frozen.
Unlike on Milan’s Via Montenapoleone, the winter fashions in Rome’s markets always feature the same three colours: orange, purple, and green. Orange, for the fruit—not the only ones, but the most numerous—freshly arrived from the groves of Sicily. Purple, for the artichokes, first the pointy, spiny ones and then the spherical mammole or carciofi romaneschi, essential for the fried carciofi alla giudia so loved in Rome. Green is for the puntarelle, which one sees bathing in plastic basins, ready cleaned by the deft knife of the vendor, or as often as not, by the vendor’s nonna tucked away behind the stalls.
Puntarelle are seldom seen outside Rome*. The plant, a kind of chicory, is officially called cicoria di catalogna (Catalonian chicory) or cicoria asparago (asparagus chicory) but in Romand dialect, always puntarelle. The first name comes from a supposed provenance and the second from the form of the edible shoots which, on the whole plant, are hidden by a celery-like outer layer and have to be snapped out of the centre. These shoots are then carved in to strips with a sharp knife or with a nifty gadget a tagliapuntarelle. The final aspect is so different from the original that even Romans sometimes fail to recognize the whole plant.
Like artichokes, puntarelle are considered by non-Roman Italians to be the thing to eat when visiting the Città Eterna. And like artichokes they are often served and eaten out of season. The seeds are sown between August and December which gives a steady crop from December to April. But given that puntarelle are usually eaten raw, dressed in a vinaigrette, and topped with chopped anchovy, you’d be forgiven for thinking them a summer plant. If you are eating them in July, however, they’ve almost certainly been frozen. For Romans, they are often the first course in the Vigilia di Natale feast. This consists of several courses, all fish-based. on which families gorge themselves unrelentingly. Puntarelle offer a fresh antipasto to this meal with the anchovy promising of things to come.
Although, as I said, puntarelle are often sold ready prepared in Roman markets, preparing them at home couldn’t be easier. If you want to try them, they are currently available for delivery in the UK and the USA via Natoora.
You start by removing the outer leaves and shoots which have the form of young celery. This will leave you with a more consistent group of shoots, joined at the bottom.
You then need to separate these shoots out by snapping them off. You will see, from the form of these shoots, where the name cicoria asparago comes from.
You then need to wash (there can be quite a lot of earth lurking between the shoots), top and tail these shoots and you will be left with a piece about 8 to 10 centimetres (3 to 4 inches) long.
You then pass this piece through the a tagliapuntarelle (or pare it into strips using a sharp knife if you don’t have one).
You should then place the resulting strips in a bowl of water for a few hours (and up to 24) until the puntarelle begin to turn curly.
Serve them cold, tossed in a vinaigrette mixed with chopped anchovy fillets. I like to eat them fresh from the fridge after they’ve had a chance to marinate in the vinaigrette and they have the most wonderful crunchy-cool texture with the comforting saltiness of the anchovies mixed through. Paradiso!
* Pretty much the only other place that puntarelle are eaten is in the Veneto where they are considered a speciality of Chioggia in the Venetian lagoon. Here they are usually cooked and are known as Cicoria Catalogna. (Back)