You can’t fault me for having a strong penchant for British English – it was the second language I learnt as a child and, let’s be honest, it’s more nuanced and generally more fun that its American sister (I envisage language as female, from the Italian that assigns a gender to every word). Take the word arugula, rocket in English and roquette in French, all variations stemming from the same Latin “eruca”. Rocket embodies more fiery pursuits than arugula does, with too many u’s and a harsher sound.
This humble and small dark green leaf is supposed to be bold and deeply peppery in flavour, enlivening any salad, but I hadn’t tasted proper arugula for many years. In Italy it’s hard to find a 100% arugula salad, it’s generally mixed in with other lettuces, because the flavour is indeed strong and can be overpowering. Not so with the supermarket one we have grown accustomed to, bland and forgetful. Even arugula bought at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market doesn’t quite come close – it might be because it grows happier on the Mediterranean shores it comes from. Known since Roman times (ancient Romans considered it an aphrodisiac and I would tend to agree if you are willing to believe that satiety from eating something extraordinary approximates good sex) it didn’t become wildly fashionable until the early ‘90s, when arugula could be found in every salad and on every pizza at most self-respecting restaurants.
I became a convert late in life. As most children, I wasn’t taken with the pungent taste that my parents seemed to love but, when I finally came to appreciate it, I just couldn’t stop. In Venice, where the best arugula comes from, I went on a proper binge although, recently, I found a source of excellent arugula closer to home. My colleague Marie, an extraordinary back-yard gardener, gave me a bunch of her crop and I was so surprised by the great taste that I would barter some worldly possessions in order to get more. I guess those Roman roots are hard to eradicate.