Food in Italy can be a fickle affair, and the notion that it’s easy to eat well and cheaply, even whilst travelling the well trodden tourist trail, is not quite as simple as it first seems. Without prior knowledge or the recommendation of a local, having spent the day weaving through camera-wielding Japanese crowds, hungry, and tired, it’s just all too easy to end up at a restaurant both bad and expensive. These are places just as dense with carbohydrates, tomato sauce, and cheese, as they are lacking in any local flavour.
This is no truer than in Northern Italy’s Veneto region, home to the coach-tour stalwarts of Venice and Verona, but also to the lesser known – and arguably more beautiful – Vicenza. It was here that I found a real taste of the region’s cooking: Baccalà, mild, almost buttery flakes of salt cod served with griddled polenta; meltingly fatty boiled sausages, saved from stodginess by a sharp, mustardy sauce; and more summery, sparingly dressed seafood pasta dishes.
These are plates which combine those savoury, sweet, and sour elements which make food so exciting, and which have inspired this recipe for a chicory, pear, and Gorgonzola salad. This is a classic northern Italian combination – for an unadulterated version, best see the Polpo cookbook, written by Russell Norman – but the griddling of the chicory, and the addition of the sweet red onion, adds a mellower, more comforting note.
I’ve used the ‘Dolce’ Gorgonzola here, principally because I’m not a much of a real man in the company of blue cheese, but you could try it with the aged, more piquant variety also readily available. The cheese slowly melts into the oil and vinegar to create a creamy, Gorgonzola-sweet, vinegar-sour dressing, coating the bitter chicory. Serves 2.
You will need:
2 heads of white chicory
1 red onion
Half a teaspoon of caster sugar
2 tablespoons of cider vinegar, to taste
A drizzle of olive oil
A pinch of sea salt
A handful of walnuts, optional
Preheat the oven to 180.
Cut the chicory into quarters, and the red onion into wedges, drizzle with olive oil, season, and sprinkle with the caster sugar. Lay on a hot griddle (one with a heatproof handle) until lightly charred – this should take about 3-5 minutes.
Place the chicory and onion – still on the griddle – into the oven for 10-15 minutes, until golden and tender. Meanwhile, peel and core the pears, and slice lengthways.
To assemble, toss the vegetables, pears, and cubed Gorgonzola, with cider vinegar. Season, pile generously on a plate, and drizzle with olive oil. A scattering of walnuts would add a welcome crunch to an otherwise soft mouthful, or choose firmer pears for added bite.