Sicilian Chard

by Sarah West


Hailed by the puzzling title, Swiss, chard doesn’t have a particularly storied history in that Alpine nation. Though chard has been grown and eaten there for centuries, Switzerland is neither the vegetable’s homeland nor its most fervent consumer.

Rumors circulate as to why chard is so adamantly referred to as Swiss: the scientist who gave chard its scientific nomenclature was a Swiss man and the term is used in deference to his effort, American seed companies used the qualifier ‘Swiss’ to differentiate chard from French spinach varieties, or that Switzerland is where chard was bred to be the vegetable we know it as today.

While such claims may hold a nugget or two of truth, the vegetable’s etymology provides more convincing evidence. The word ‘chard’ was once (as recently as the early 20th Century) used interchangeably to refer to both the inner stem of an artichoke plant and the leafy, succulent-stemmed beet-relative. In old French, cardoon, a variety of artichoke cultivated for its tender blanched stems, was referred to as ‘carde.’ Though chard and artichoke are completely unrelated botanically, their stems do bear some resemblance.

To picture this, you must imagine chard as it looked then—the same dark green, savoyed leaves we would recognize today crowning, in most varieties, a white or pale green stem. Lopped of their foliage, cardoon and chard stems could easily be confused, both resembling wide, pale celery stalks.

In the spirit of clarity, seed catalogs did distinguish the two chards, ‘Swiss’ added as a notation that the chard would be of beet-plant origin. The region that comprises modern-day Germany was one of the most zealous diasporas of the chard and beet clan, responsible for much of the vegetables’ development into what we grow and eat today. Perhaps Swiss had a better ring, and Germany’s southern neighbors, link between chard’s ancient homeland and its enthusiastic adopter, were likely to be chard-loving people as well.

Both Beta vulgaris in botanic nomenclature, beets and chard are nearly the same plant, one cultivated for its swollen root, the other for its stems and foliage. Of the two, chard more closely resembles the wild plant from which they were derived. Known today as sea beet, the ancestral chard and beet plant is native to the Mediterranean rim, liking, as its name implies, the sandy soils and temperate climate of its maritime home.

If chard were to have an associated nationality, it should instead be Sicily. Perhaps the sea beet’s earliest adopters, Sicilians introduced their own selections to the mainland—plants with tender leaves and stems, better adapted to garden cultivation than wild varieties. As chard was passed northward, gardeners selected for the qualities they preferred. Beta vulgaris exhibits wide genetic variability and from those rich resources millennia of gardeners uncovered myriad stem colors and sweet, long-storing roots.

Chard is a dependable, long-season green, a mainstay of temperate-region gardens from early spring until the first hard freeze. Beets filled in the rest of the caloric calendar, offering sustenance from the root cellar in months when the garden was covered in snow. Freshly sprouted leaves from cellared beets in late winter historically provided much needed nutrients. Beta vulgaris played a vital role in feeding continental Europeans for thousands of years, thus its place in their cuisines is paramount. An essential potherb, chard leaves appear widely in soup and rice dishes, its stems in gratins and braises.

It’s true, chard tastes something like spinach. Such was the claim that convinced me to try those intimidatingly outsized leaves back when they seemed as exotic as passionfruit or mango. Sautéed in oil and garlic, I discovered chard’s deep, earthy quality and mild saltiness. A Sicilian at heart, chard maintains an affinity for its ancient nursery grounds, a touch of brine to its otherwise mild manner.

As a gardener, I came to prefer chard to spinach as its temperament is more even and its growing season more forgiving. A ubiquitous presence in my gardens, thriving in spring and fall, passably surviving summer’s heat waves, I unwittingly began to know it as Sicilian chard: dependable, endlessly useful, deeply nourishing.