Chicory: An Italian Love Story

by Viviana Bianchini

All you need is a knife and a bag. Walk in (almost) any field in Italy and look for a star-shaped plant spreading its leaves to the ground. Sometimes a shy tall blue flowerhead will mark the spot. Cichorium Intybus, Wild Chicory, Blue Sailor [1]. In Italy we call it cicoria and we love it. You can have it simply boiled with a squeeze of lemon or you can pan-fry it with garlic and chili pepper. Pair it with potatoes, broad beans or grilled sausages. Cicoria is one of the favorite side dishes in Central and Southern Italy. Domenico Modugno wrote a sweet lullaby in Pugliese dialect dedicated to this bitter-flavored wild plant.

Still, cicoria is a synonym for poor people’s food. Wild plants are also called alimurgic plants, from the Latin alimenta (=food) urgentia (= need, emergency). They are an essential source of food in case of need, a resource in case of wars or famine. Wild plants, including chicory, became precious during the Second World War. In Rome another old name for wild chicory was bistecca di prato, field’s steak, a steak for people who couldn’t afford meat. There is a scene in Fausto Tozzi’s film Trastevere (1971) that shows how important the cicoria was for poor people living in Rome just after the second world war. A bus breaks down in the countryside during a pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Divine Love, on the outskirts of Rome. The group of religious women get off the bus and discovers a field full of chicory. They thank the Holy Mary for receiving grace. One of them shouts “We are rich now!” They are about to renounce to the pilgrimage to pick up as much chicory as they can.

http://tesoridiroma.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/la-cicoria-dal-film-trastevere.html

The chicory seller was a common job in Rome at the beginning of the last century [2]. Apparently in 1979 there were still 167 cicoriari selling wild chicory in Rome’s markets. Fare la cicoria, “to do the chicory” was an important social activity for women in the Italian countryside. In the Sardinian dialect there is a verb for it: ziccoriare [3]. Imagine groups of relatives, friends and neighbors having long walks together. One hour of foraging lead up to two hours of washing and preparing the plants for cooking. Pasolini mentions chicory in  The Hawks and Sparrows. When the friars are in countryside they say hi to all the wild edible plants: Blessed is fresh grass, mint, nettle, chicory/ and blessed who’s eating it/God bless him!

When the mafia super-boss Bernardo Provenzano was arrested in 2006, one of the oddest details for the Italian journalists was the wild chicory he was boiling on the kitchen stove [4]. Mangiare pane e cicoria – literally “to eat bread and chicory” – is a colloquial phrase that means to be poor, to content oneself with very little, or to make sacrifices. According to the Neapolitan Smorfia tradition, dreaming uncooked chicory means you need to renounce something [5]. The Italian wild chicory is bitter, but as Fellini suggests in his film L’Intervista [6]: The bitterness is its good, it’s a pleasing bitterness. This happens also with the people of Rome: it seems they reject you, instead they like you. http://tesoridiroma.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/la-cicoria-nel-film-lintervista.html

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[1] Linnaeus used the Chicory as one of the flowers in his Floral Clock at Uppsala, because of its regularity in opening at 5am and closing at 10am in that latitude. In Italy it opens in the morning and closes around 4pm. For this reasons it is also called orologio dei pastori “shepherds’ clock”, as it marks the time for the shepherds to come back to the farm for milking. See Botanical.com – http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/c/chicor61.html

[2] Luigi Zanazzo, Usi, costumi e pregiudizi del popolo di Roma, Società Tipografico-Editrice Nazionale, Torino, 1908. Available online: http://www.liberliber.it/mediateca/libri/z/zanazzo/usi_costumi_e_pregiudizi_etc/pdf/usi_co_p.pdf

[3] http://medicinapopolaresarda.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/antiche-consuetudini-andar-per.html

[4]http://archiviostorico.corriere.it/2006/aprile/13/padrino_passione_per_cicoria_erba_co_9_060413035.shtml ; Andrea Camilleri, Voi non sapete, Mondadori, 2011, p. 45-46.

[5]http://www.lasmorfianapoletana.com/smorfianapoletana/?src=mangiare+cicoria+cotta

[6] An actress is picking up chicory just outside the Cinecittà Studios. http://tesoridiroma.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/la-cicoria-nel-film-lintervista.html

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