Looking at the digital thermometer cum hydrometer on my desk, I see the temperature has dropped below 70 degrees. We seem to be in deep winter. I must consider putting on a long-sleeved shirt. And still it doesn’t rain. Hasn’t rained since March and a cold wind is blowing around all the dried up weeds I’ve raked into great piles along the terraces. Because I can’t burn the weeds. Not safely anyway. Not till it starts to rain. The heavy morning dew has encouraged snails – where on earth do they come from? The birds have taken their toll, so now I’m gathering what’s left of my crop of Acelga before I run out of water.
Once a week I go shopping in the supermarkets and drive down the winding tracks out of the hills to where everything turns flat and green. I am driving across the now bone dry flood plain of the river Velez. About a hundred years ago, when there used to be water in the river and floods for tens of thousands of years before that, a great river would run down to the sea. The sea would stop the raging freshwater dead in its tracks and the river would dump millions of tons of rich alluvial soil in a thick flat strip from the mouth of the Lecrin valley all the way down to Torre Del Mar.
It’s this strip that’s the colour of winter greens today. Stuffed with cabbage, winter lettuce, leeks, Lombard (red) cabbage, cauliflower, and the “queen of greens”, Acelga. Farmers can make a good living down here whereas where I am up in the hills we still farm by hand as did the Romans and Carthaginians. Ha! try living on the wage of a Carthaginian agricultural labourer!
Alcelga is chard, and there are fields of it now around Velez. In most parts of the world it’s a spring to summer crop but its presence here in December reminds us that in the Axarquia there is a second spring in September when you can plant cabbages, onion and lettuce. If you are able to water them of course.
Acelga is known in English as Swiss chard, white beet, strawberry spinach, sea kale beet, leaf beet, Sicilian beet, spinach beet, Chilian beet, Roman kale, and silver beet. Originally, chard was a corruption of the French word for cardoon, carde. Its Latin name is Beta vulgaris. Beta is the Roman (Latin) word for beets. Swiss chard is technically referred to either as “biete da costa” , coastal beet because it originally thrived in the salty soil found along coasts, or as “biete da orta” – beet greens, because it was cultivated as a vegetable garden plant. The term “Swiss” bears no relevance to its origin, only to the ego of the scientist who named it. He was Swiss called Koch, who rather unscientifically named it after his homeland where it won’t grow. It will surprise no one to learn that the Spanish word for Swiss chard is acelga, which comes from the Arabic word al-silq.
In fact al-silq is native to Spain and to the entire Mediterranean coast region. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about it in the fourth century B.C. The ancient Greeks and later the Romans regarded chard as a plant of great culinary and medicinal qualities
Only the leaves of the wild native plant were eaten and it was not until the first century that the ruby varieties with swollen roots – “beetroot” were created as cultivars of the wild plant. You now get red and yellow in the leaf varieties but the white is best for cooking. The coloured varieties are pretty but their stems are tough.
The Spanish grow white stemmed chard to such a massive size that it is almost unrecognisable to foreigners. A metre long with great white stalks, tied up in bundles with string it looks like an exotic monster. The Spanish liking for eating babies – fish, sheep and pigs, clearly doesn’t extend to vegetables. Chard of this size has to be treated two vegetables in one. The white stem which looks like celery is altogether different from the green leaf of the plant which resembles lush, thick spinach. You need to separate the stems and green leaves, cook the stems first in boiling water for about three minutes then drop the leaves in and boil till they wilt, another two minutes. You have to boil and not steam this vegetable in order to remove the oxalates that taste bitter and may have health issues for those with untreated kidney and gall bladder conditions.
Boiling however does not remove or detract from the fantastic health benefits of eating this vegetable. Swiss chard is an excellent source of vitamin K, manganese and magnesium, copper and calcium all of which contribute to the growth health and strength of bones. It is rich in the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E. For energy, it is rich in phosphorous and iron, vitamins B2 and B6. It has significant muscle-building protein, and heart-healthy dietary fibre, potassium and folate. It is rich in vitamin B1, B5, in niacin and in zinc that supports the immune system .
Both the leaves and the roots of Swiss chard have been the subject of “phytonutrient” studies. “Phyto” is Greek for “plant” and these studies look at beneficial micro foods that come from plants. The fibre in chard seems particularly effective in preventing digestive tract cancers. Several research studies on chard focus specifically on colon cancer, where Swiss chard extracts or fibres have been found to reduce pre-cancerous lesions in animals. Preliminary animal research also suggests that Swiss chard may protect the kidneys of people with diabetes by reducing serum urea and creatinine levels. It is suspected anecdotally that eating the plant helps to regulate blood sugar.
In the kitchen it is one of the most versatile greens in the market. Isn’t it the truth that the when food is at its best - delicious plentiful and cheap, it is often despised by the purchasing public? Cornish mackerel, Shetland mussels, fresh anchovies and sardines from Cadiz would, were they to quadruple in price become instant delicacies. This is true of fruit and veg, and acelga is certainly as nutritionally power packed as pomegranate juice, so get it while you can before dietary fashion puts the price up!
The plant is hard as nails. If you live in a warm place as I do, all you need is water and it will grow all year round. Without water the plant tends to bolt. If this happens slice it back, water it and three or four little chards will grow from the stump. Or put a few seedlings from a garden centre in a pot, pick out the small leaves as they sprout and you can “cut and come again”. Mix the baby leaves into a green salad with lettuce, baby spinach and a little rocket. The sharpness and fatness of the leaves give depth to the salad.
Older chard should be blanched. Strip off the green, cut it into ribbons and drop it in boiling water for a couple of minutes, refresh in cold water, and it can be dressed in a vinaigrette and used as a salad. The young stems can be blanched for a little longer and similarly dressed and served with sweet pickled garlic and strips of Serrano ham.
Acelga is the food of peasants and they make great and tasty dishes of it. Its goes very well mixed with chick peas. During the dark days under Franco, impoverished rural communities would make best use of their raisin drying beds by sowing a catch crop of garbanzos in September, after the muscatel harvest. Chick peas can be combined with acelga to make a substantial and nutritious meal. Simmer some chick peas til tender, with a pinch of saffron if you have it for brilliant colour. Or marigold petals if you have them. Sweat an onion and a couple of garlic cloves til golden. Wilt a few handfuls of Acela greens blanched and sliced into ribbons. Combine. The bright yellow of the peas and the dark green of the chard make an attractive dish – great with curries or those spiced Morroccan dishes. Add some toasted cumin or mustard seeds?
My wife makes a strudel using Acelga greens seasoned, combined with “provencal” herbs, garlic and chunks of freshly pressed goat cheese – the sort you can get at any village grocery. The cheese is mild, firm and delicious with no goat “taint” to it. She bakes the mixture wrapped in three or four sheets of filo pastry you can buy ready made at Eroski’s. Like all Acelga dishes, you can tart it up. Add toasted pine kernels, toasted almonds, or walnuts and soaked muscatel raisins with some cheese especially “Cabrales” – a delicious Spanish blue goat cheese.
Those of you on the 5:2 diet might consider acelga for your starvation days. It has just 18 calories per 100 grams. Stew some in stock and top with a carefully poached egg (75 calories). 50grams of Feta cheese (130 cals) on top with plenty of fresh ground pepper and stick under the grill? 220 calories for lunch? Or make a simple revuelto by combining a couple of scrambled eggs (150 cals)with a handful of wilted acelga (18 cals). 168 calories altogether - you know it makes sense!