This is in praise of the humble chard – a vegetable that I never tasted until I was in my early twenties. Despite my mother growing vegetables and always keeping an eye on the costs, for some reason, chard never turned up on our plates. In fact, I didn’t even know it existed when I first tasted this dark, green leaf in a meal cooked in Andalucía by my formidable future mother-in-law.
An erstwhile amateur opera singer, painter (and a ferocious mother), Paddy had whisked her two younger sons away from Winchester and persuaded Johnny, her oldest son (my fiancé), to join them on a long gipsy-like tour through Spain while I stayed behind in cold, damp Oxford to study for my Finals.
Their plan was to take six months out and explore Spain, but after three months they ended up in a small pueblo village on the southern flanks of the Alpujarras Mountains in Andalucía and decided to stay there. Johnny suggested I should fly out for a two-week break over Easter to join them before my exams started.
He met me at Malaga airport – in those days a simple white-washed building surrounded by hangars. Being students with no money, we caught a bus for the long journey along the narrow winding coast road to the village of Castel del Ferro. The bus was crammed. Women wearing black dresses and headscarves clutched baskets of produce and one of them had a cage of chickens on her lap. The men, straw hatted or flat capped, smoked and spat and seemed to be constantly arguing. I was overwhelmed by the guttural vociferousness of the Spanish language and the smell of cheap cigarettes and stale sweat.
It took four and a half long winding hours – past cliffs and beaches; past groves of orange, almond, and olive trees; past run-down towns and small white villages. It was 1975, only four years after Franco died. Now you can do the same journey on the coastal motorway in just over an hour as you whizz past block after block of package holiday hotels and private estates of villas where expatriates drink sangria and moan about exchange rates and Brexit.
We arrived in the village of Gualchos in the early evening, hot, tired, sticky. Paddy was in the kitchen, cooking dinner. Candles were on the pine table and from the terrace of the house, there was a wonderful view across the terracotta tiles of the village houses and down to the silvery shimmering Mediterranean.
I was bemused by the shiny giant leaves she was washing under the tap.
“What are they?” I asked.
“Athelga,” she replied.
Being none the wiser, I asked what they were called in English.
“Chard”, Paddy explained.
Still no wiser – I had never seen or eaten chard.
Paddy showed me how to slice out the thick fibrous stalks, which are like a separate vegetable. These she sliced and sautéed in oil with lots of garlic and pepper. The dark green leaves were shredded finely and added to a giant tortilla that she was cooking.
I loved the tastes – the crunchy, slightly sharp taste of the stalks and the pungent, dark green taste of the leaves. Over the two weeks I was there, Paddy cooked them in stews of rich ripe tomatoes and sautéed them to add as side vegetables.
When I finally returned home (after Finals), to my parent’s house in Buckinghamshire, I asked my mother why she didn’t cook chard. “Chard?” she said, in a tone of disgust. “That’s for feeding to the pigs!” I took her comment at face value, but all these years later, I’ve realised that she could only have picked that up from the days when she was evacuated from Birmingham during the war, to live with a family of smallholders in the Forest of Dean.
When I had my own vegetable garden in Wales, I was able to grow, cook, and eat my own chard – the ruby, the white, the orange. It is the most generous of vegetables. You can slice a leaf here and there, and the plant puts up new leaves. As for the ruby chard, it is so stunning to look at that I frequently planted it in amongst my flowers to provide some stunning architectural foliage. And of course, you get two vegetables for the price of one.
When I came to live here in France, I discovered it is as popular as it was in Spain, except here it is called ‘blette’ – completing a neat ABC of names – ‘Acelga’, ‘Blette’, and ‘Chard’. (Turns out that ‘Athelga’ was the ‘c’ turned into an Andalucian ‘th’.)
I now buy my chard from Benjamin Cabot, who grows organic vegetables and fruit in the beautiful valley of St. Christophe, near the Viaur valley. I often used to pass his farm when I lived in the north of the Tarn, and I like the fact that his vegetables have followed me south to Albi.
I cooked up his chard with some onions and lemon to make a side serving for another Tarnais curiosity that I bought from the market the same morning – ‘la cinquette’ – a blood pancake made with onions, chicken blood, and bread. My egg lady (12 eggs for €1!) makes them in the late spring, early summer when they slaughter the chickens.
Chard with Parmesan & Lemon: Preparation/cooking time 25 minutes; serves 4
25 gm butter
2 tbsp olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1-2 onions (depending on size), finely chopped
a large bunch of chard
zest and juice of half a lemon
50 gm finely grated parmesan cheese
Prepare the chard by washing thoroughly (I removed some of the more raggedy bits that had been eaten by caterpillars – the joy of organic food!). Cut out the stems from the leaves and slice thinly. Separate the leaves and cut them into thin ribbons and put aside.
Melt the butter and oil in a large frying pan, add the onion and garlic and sauté gently until the onion has become transparent. Add the stems of the chard and cook until softening.
Now add the leaves and mix through, along with the lemon zest and juice. When the leaves have wilted add the parmesan cheese and stir through until melted.
The addition of the lemon somehow cuts through the slightly sharp taste of the chard leaves (odd how that works!) and the creaminess of the melted parmesan brings all the tastes together. It made a perfect accompaniment for the rich taste of the blood ‘cinquette‘.