For love of bitter leaves

Radicchio, escarole, endive, and their common progenitor, dandelion, are at their best in the autumn as light levels and temperatures drop.

Bitter flavours are said to cleanse the liver. A few years ago, after hearing me enthuse about cardoons and dandelions on a farm tour, a Russian herbalist suggested I was self-medicating; bitter flavours stimulate bile production, cleansing the liver – where my all-too-evident anger naturally resided. I like to think my anger has mellowed, but my enthusiasm for bitterness shows no sign of abating.

Radicchio, escarole, endive, and their common progenitor, dandelion, are at their best in the autumn as light levels and temperatures drop. For those with the right palate, they provide a welcome extension to the local salad season. If you struggle with bitterness, a salad can be tempered with sweeter leaves, or the dressing sweetened with sherry vinegar or honey.

Inspired by Jamie Oliver, I have even added fruit, risking a marital with my beloved wife Geetie who considers this sacrilege. All bitter leaves can be cooked; radicchio makes excellent risotto or pasta with cream and thyme to soften the flavour, and gently reduced dandelions make a delicious accompaniment to lamb, traditionally served as the ‘bitter herbs’ at a Passover meal. The best dandelions are found in partial shade during spring and summer, though at this time of year they can be picked anywhere. I have a particularly fine crop growing under my artichokes.

The local deer population has munched the tops off our radicchio, rendering the remaining crop unsaleable, though we will continue to use the un-munched bits in our salad bags until the new year.

We have pain de sucre, a compact escarole variety, coming from our French farm for another month or two. There’s also chicory, a tight and neat endive – produced by growing strong roots outdoors, lifting in the autumn and replanting in a darkened tunnel in winter to produce pale, forced heads, just as forced rhubarb is grown in Yorkshire. I’m afraid it is from Holland, as to my knowledge no one grows it in the UK; for a more ecologically sound and spiritually satisfying alternative, stick to locally foraged dandelions. They are probably also much more nutritious.

I suspect we foist more bitterness on you than some of you appreciate. Perhaps when I slip under the sod things will be sweeter. But for those of you who like a real challenge, cardoons are back until the frost does them in; a snip at £3.15 for 500g, and your liver will never be cleaner.     

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