06 August 2011

Beasts or greens?

Another green leafy vegetable that we are growing in the garden this year is Swiss chard. That's called silverbeet in Australia, I understand, and maybe elsewhere. Chard is closely related to beets, and both are more closely related to spinach than to cabbage. Chard isn't Swiss at all, according to what I've read, but it has been part of the Mediterranean diet at least since Roman times.

Chard is very confusing, linguistically, in French. A lot of people call it bettes, and a lot of others call it blettes (with an L). Both terms are in the plural, and neither one seems to be especially regional. I wonder if linguistically the word bettes is too close to the word bêtes, which as a noun means "beasts." Phonetically, j'ai mangé des bettes — chard — and j'ai mangé des bêtes — beasts or animals — sound exactly the same, so such a sentence is ambiguous in the spoken form.

Blettes growing in the garden in 2009

To get around the ambiguity, people say blettes rather than bettes, or they use a longer form of the second term: bettes-cardes or bettes à cardes. Or just cardes. Or another term entirely, la poirée à carde(s). It's enough to make your head spin.

In my opinion, it's better to say blettes (with the L) rather than bettes (without the L), because everyone understands what you are talking about, even though some people will take the opportunity to correct you. They are the ones who are sure that either bettes or blettes is absolutely the correct term to use, and the other is an error in French.

Blettes are grown as much for their white ribs
as for their green leaves.

Over the centuries, beets have been cultivated and selected for their bulbous roots, while chard has been cultivated for its wide, thick leaf ribs — les côtes, which is the same word used for humans' and animals' ribs. Why the ribs? Because that's the part people eat. Sometimes they actually throw out the green leafy part of the leaf. Ginette Mathiot, in her Je sais cuisiner home cookery book — the one I have is ©1970 — says to trim away the green part of the leaves from the white ribs — as she says, « Enlever les feuilles vertes. » — and cook just the ribs, serving them with white, cheese, or cream sauce.

Blettes on the serving dish with boiled potatoes
that look a lot like eggs

Our friend G., 81, who lives on the other side of the village, brought us a big bagful of blettes two or three years ago. I asked her how she cooked them. She said she just cooked everything together. No separating the white from the green parts for her. She gave some to our other neighbor, M., who cooked them one day when she invited us all over for lunch. She cooked the whole blette leaves too, white and green together.

That's what I usually do, but another way to prepare the blettes is to cut the green parts off the white ribs and then cook both, separately. The green parts then are more like spinach, but they have a slightly different, milder flavor. The white parts have the same earthy flavor, but you use them differently. Physically, they slightly resemble celery stalks, and they have strings like celery stalks that it is best to remove before cooking them.

Lasagne with côtes de blettes

A year or two ago, I got a comment or an e-mail from somebody from England who was traveling around in the South of France. They don't seem to sell whole chard leaves in the markets down here, the person said. All they were selling was the wide white ribs, with the green parts cut off. That's the way it's done in France, often, when it comes to blettes.

La Cuisinière provençale, by J.-B. Reboul, gives the classic recipe for cooking blettes or, more precisely, côtes de blettes. It's a gratin. The book has existed in many editions since 1897, apparently. Here's the recipe (my translation): After trimming and washing the chard ribs, cook them in a large quantity of lightly salted water. Drain them and arrange them in a baking dish. Sprinkle on grated cheese and pour over all some béchamel sauce to which you've added two or three raw egg yolks. Sprinkle on some more grated cheese and cook the dish slowly in the oven.

A close-up of the layers after cooking (and cooling)

That's kind of what I was going to do yesterday with some côtes de blettes that I took out of the freezer. But then I had the idea of making a dish of lasagne with them instead. Just make layers in a baking dish: (1) tomato sauce, lasagne noodles, cooked chard ribs, grated cheese, béchamel sauce; (2) more lasagne noodles, more chard ribs, more grated cheese, more béchamel; (3) more lasagne noodles and finally more tomato sauce. Optionally, more cheese on top. And optionally, a slice or two of sandwich-style ham (jambon de Paris or Danish ham) or other meat added at strategic points among the layers for flavor, just to use up some leftover ham slices.

I put slices of mozzarella on top of the lasagne.

In Les Recettes d'une grand'mère (1988), Renée de Grossouvre has this to say about les bettes-cardes ou côtes de bettes: « Elles sont (à mon avis) un légume bien secondaire et sans goût. C'est la sauce qui les fait passer. » — "Chard is a tasteless, second-class vegetable. It's the sauce that makes them palatable." With the melted cheese, tomato sauce, and béchamel in lasagne, they are pretty good, giving a flavor that's a little like the taste of spinach. And you've eaten your vegetables, so you can feel good about it.


  1. I am going to speculate that blettes (bettes) and betteraves, being from the same botanical family, are thus related linguistically. Like céléri and céléri-rave. One has been developed for its stalks and the other for its root.

  2. Ellen is right that chard and beetroot are related. I'd never heard of this business of only eating the stalks until we moved to the UK. I thought it was some weird British affectation. Why would you choose the stalks over the leaves when the leaves have flavour and the stalks have none? I generally pick it very young and just use the leaves.

  3. I think I said that in the post: "Chard is closely related to beets..." LOL.

    I remember eating chard ribs (no greens) 40 years ago in Paris. Since I had never eaten them in America, it seemed natural to me.

  4. The lasagna looks so delicious! And here I always thought "chard" WAS the French word for "chard."

  5. Lasagna in any form, is one of my all-time favorite dishes.

  6. I grew Swiss Chard for years in S.Africa. My husband is not a lettuce fan so I always use the green with rocket, sorrel and herbs as a salad. The ribs can then be cooked like asparagus.
    My other favourite is to slice an onion, cook it gently in butter, add flour salt and pepper and add milk to make a white sauce. Mix in the cooked chopped chard, yummy.
    I have to admit that I still get my seed from S.A. I prefer the chard, taste is the same, but the plant seems to be much more vigorous and does not go to seed as easily. Diane

  7. Diane, another addition to the chard you describe and which makes it very good with a white or béchamel sauce (or cream) is a big tablespoonful of Dijon mustard.

  8. And what do the Swiss call it? :)

  9. Bonne question (comme on dit maintenant), Judy. Y a-t-il des Suisses qui lisent de blog ? Où des expatriés qui habitent en Suisse ?

  10. Whatever it's called, that lasagne looks yummy to me. And good for you, too.

  11. Good thoughts about chard....We do like it with a little vinegar, or a little bit of crisp bacon and vinegar or lemon juice. But I hadn't thought of just hiding its "earthy" taste in a lot of strongly flavored sauce. I like the idea of the lasagna with chard.

  12. Another question - don't you have the "rainbow" chard in France, the plants with the yellow and red stalks?

  13. Kirsti - before Ken can answer that question - yes, you can and there is a lady just down the hill from our house that has multicolured chard in a planter outside the front door - they look very jolly - last year she had petunias!!

  14. We tried to grow the yellow- and red-ribbed chard a couple of years ago, but for whatever reason it didn't do well. This year we have the white-ribbed chard and it's going strong.

  15. Thanks for all the answers about the rainbow chard. I seem to always be getting the red ribbed variety from my CSA farm. Either Tim thinks it's the prettiest or perhaps it's the variety that does best here. Maybe the white ribbed doesn't care for our northeast Ohio soil or climate. It certainly is very prolific, but I like collards and kale better, for greens.

    And I miss the prolific all season "Malabar Spinach" which I used to grow. Not a real spinach, but a great all season green.

  16. Ken I like the idea of the mustard will try that out. Diane

  17. Oh I forgot to add, I also did not have much joy with the coloured chard but the green grows like a weed. Diane

  18. As it happens, dictionary.com's word of the day today is "nervure". It is defined as "rib" such as in a leaf or an insect wing.
    Have you ever heard the word "nervure" in French? Is there a difference between "nervure" and "cote"?

  19. To dscribe leaves, a côte is a grosse nervure. Cabbage, rhubarb, lettuce, and chard leaves have such ribs.

    It dawned on me sometime yesterday that the expressions côtes de bettes and côtes de bêtes really are ambiguous orally. So côtes de blettes is clearer.

  20. Hmmm this recipe looks so delicious and nice and i think that fits perfect with my taste and in my opinion is a very easy recipe, so i think i will try it. Thanks for sharing.

  21. Hooray for chard, and for your post, Ken! I've always grown chard in my garden and used greens and ribs together as a vegetable side, or in bean soup, or instead of spinach in ravioli florentine. When I use just the ribs I sauté them with olive oil, garlic, and parsley or sometimes arugula. But never have I thought about chard-rib lasagne! Definitely going to try it.


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