This week we have reached the tipping point where autumn turns to face winter. There is a nip in the morning air and, as soon as the sun sets, a jacket and scarf are needed outside. So far we have avoided a frost, but it is only a matter of time, and so the pumpkins that until last weekend were ripening in October sunshine, are now safely tucked up inside.
These moments when the seasons make a noticeable shift towards the next also have an effect both on what is available to eat in the garden and what we feel like eating. The first celeriac have been pulled, and have so far been used in a sharply dressed remoulade and a creamy soup flavoured with bay and nutmeg. Pumpkins have been made into vibrant curries with lemongrass, ginger and coriander, or hearty gratins with fontina cheese and a crust of herbed breadcrumbs. We are also just starting on the brassicas, plumping for romanesco and early sprouting broccoli before we get firmly stuck into the savoys and kales. There are also the windfalls to use up before they turn to mush, and the very last of the hedgerow fruits, both of which give us a connection back to the last days of summer, when there was still some heat in the sun.
Although we still have a few summer sown lettuces hanging on in there, they quickly go to seed now, and can’t be relied on to provide salad for much longer. However, the chicories and radicchios are invaluable at this time of year, as they are incredibly hardy and come into their own as the temperatures fall. We grow those varieties that we have found to be the most reliable over the years; the elongated blood red Rossa di Treviso (both Tardivo and Svelta), the spherical, strongly veined Palla Rossa and the delicately mottled Variegata di Castelfranco. These we sow throughout the summer, starting in May for summer salad leaves, with successional sowings in June, July and August. The June and July sowings are now hearty enough to eat, while the plants from the final sowing will keep us going through the Christmas period and into the new year.
As the season progresses the bitter taste of chicory provides a welcome and fresh contrast to the roots and squashes which increasingly will be either roasted, mashed or baked in vegetable casseroles. Paired with ingredients that provide a sweet or earthy foil to their bitterness, salads of chicory make regular appearances on our winter table.
This salad bridges the autumn and winter larders by using the first of the chicory hearts, combined with the familiar autumn combination of apple and blackberry, with bite provided by crisp, roast hazelnuts. Here I have used both the hearts and outer leaves of Variegata di Castelfranco, but you can use a mixture of any of the green and red varieties available. For the dressing I use hazelnut oil and a spoonful of homemade bramble jelly to accentuate the flavour of the main ingredients. Any lightly flavoured oil such as rapeseed or sunflower and a little honey will do just as well. It is important that the apple slices hold their shape when cooked, so choose a firm eating apple. Pears work equally well as and, as the blackberries disappear until next year, the addition of a sharp blue cheese such as Gorgonzola, Roquefort or Picos de Europa adds a piquancy that goes well with the nuts.
This is good served with celeriac or parsnip soup, or a creamy pumpkin pasta or risotto.
1 large or 3 small heads of chicory or radicchio
A large knob of butter, about a tablespoon
1 tablespoon hazelnut or other lightly flavoured oil
1 tablespoon cider or sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons reduced blackberry juice
1 teaspoon bramble jelly or honey
6 tablespoons hazelnut or other lightly flavoured oil
A large pinch of sea salt
Remove the leaves from the chicory and tear into large pieces, discarding any coarse parts of the central rib. Wash in cold water and then dry in a salad spinner or clean tea towel. Keep to one side.
Put the blackberries in a small pan with a tablespoon of water. Put on a low heat with the lid on and gently bring to a simmer for a few minutes until the fruit gives up its juice. Do not allow to boil.
Strain the blackberries in a sieve over a bowl and reserve. Put the juice back in the pan and simmer until reduced to about two tablespoons. Reserve for the dressing.
Put the hazelnuts on a baking tray into a hot oven (200°C) for 5-8 minutes. Check them regularly to ensure they don’t burn. Remove the nuts from the oven and tip into a clean tea towel. Gather the four corners of the cloth together and rub the nuts hard to remove the dry skins. Remove the cleaned hazelnuts from the cloth and reserve.
Peel and core the apples. Cut into quarters and then cut each quarter into four slices. Put into a bowl of water acidulated with lemon juice to prevent them discolouring. In a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan, which is large enough to take all of the apple slices, heat the hazelnut oil and butter together over a moderate heat. Remove the apple slices from the bowl of water and dry on a clean cloth. When the butter starts to foam, lay the slices of apple in the pan. Turn the heat up and cook until they start to caramelise. Carefully turn the slices over and cook until browned on the other side. Remove the apple slices from the pan with a slotted spoon, being careful not to break them. Put on a piece of kitchen paper.
Make the dressing by putting the vinegar, reserved blackberry juice, bramble jelly or honey and salt into a bowl. Whisk until the salt has dissolved. Add the oil and whisk again until emulsified.
To assemble the salad arrange the chicory leaves on a large serving plate. Distribute the apple slices, blackberries and hazelnuts evenly and then spoon over the dressing. Eat immediately.