Exploring Italian vegetables

Exploring Italian vegetables

by Sally Abé 16 August 2016

Sally explores some of the diverse vegetables that abound in the sunny climes of Italy, from the familiar to the not-so-familiar, there's plenty of great recipes to best show off their flavours and textures.

After a five-year stint in the kitchen at two Michelin-starred restaurant The Ledbury, Sally is now head chef at The Harwood Arms in London.

When Sally came to London to cook as part of her culinary arts degree, she never went back to college in Sheffield.

Sally began her career at the Savoy Grill, before moving on to a two year stint at Gordon Ramsay's Claridges restaurant. After this, she spent five years at two-Michelin-starred restaurant The Ledbury as sous chef.

Sally is now the head chef at the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms in London, where she makes the most of Britain's fantastic game meat and seasonal produce.

Although the seasons are similar, the climate in Italy is much milder than in the UK and it allows for a wealth of varieties to thrive.


Italy grows a lot of leaves from the chicory family; as well as the standard yellow chicory and red radicchio, there are many varieties available. Andrea Sarri uses Tardivo, a type of long radicchio, in his Bonito and radicchio with sweet and sour soy sauce; the bitter leaves complement the rich fish and are balanced by the sweet sauce.

Puntarelle is another variety of chicory popular in Italy; it has long dandelion shaped leaves that grow up to 50cm in length and small inner shoots that are traditionally eaten raw served with a rich anchovy dressing to counteract its bitterness.


Tomatoes are one of the fundamentals of Italian cuisine even though they have only been used in cooking since the eighteenth century. Italians place tomatoes in two categories for eating: insalatari – tomatoes for eating raw, normally quite acidic, and salsa – usually very ripe tomatoes used for sauces and cooking. Some of the world’s tastiest varieties hail from Italy including Datterini, San Marzano and the cherry, Pachino. Andrea Migliaccio showcases the D.O.P. certified San Marzano tomato in his Passata of San Marzano Tomatoes with Buffalo Ricotta and pesto.


Monk's beard

Agretti, or monk’s beard as it is known in the UK, is grown in Tuscany and has a very short season that is only five weeks long, however, there are farmers beginning to grow it on home soil due to its soaring popularity amongst chefs. Its saltiness gives a real flavour boost to dishes such as Cristina Bowerman’s Veal and vignarola salad.


Beetroot is not commonly associated with Italian cooking, however, the striking Chioggia or candy stripe beetroot, originates from the town of the same name in Veneto. First cultivated in the mid-19th century, this vibrant vegetable has pink and white stripes and makes a stunning addition to a salad. The Cerea brothers brighten up their Apple with caviar and iced almond with finely sliced, raw chioggia.


A vegetable that is commonly associated with Italy is the courgette or zucchini. We are probably all familiar with the run of the mill green courgette but there are also striped varieties, yellow varieties, round varieties and the most unusual Trombetta courgettes which are known for their long winding shape resembling a trumpet; they also happen to be especially delicious. Courgette flowers are also a popular choice in Italy – Alessandro Gavagna gently wilts his courgette flowers and serves them with apple and horseradish.


Cavolo nero

Cavolo nero, or black cabbage, is becoming increasingly well known in the UK and has been grown in Italy since 600BC. It is rich in nutrients and can be used as a tasty alternative to kale in soups and salads. It has a distinct flavour that is slightly sweeter than that of its cousin kale.


Italy is also home to more unusual types of broccoli; cime de rapa, or broccoli rabe, is a brassica generally associated with Southern Italian cuisine. It is similar to our well-known broccoli but with small florets, long stems and edible leaves it is slightly more bitter in taste. Another Italian broccoli is romanesco; a striking vegetable, its geometric shape looks more like a maths puzzle than a vegetable and its flavour is somewhere between broccoli and cauliflower.