Roast fennel, chicory and red onion with ‘silk weaver’s brain’

Roast fennel, chicory and red onion with ‘silk weaver’s brain’

The Sunday Night Book
Patricia Niven

Don’t be put off by the mention of brain in the title: the Lyonnaise speciality of ‘silk weaver’s brain’, or cervelle de canut, is actually a beautifully delicate herb-infused soft cheese, so named because silk weavers weren’t considered to be that bright! I use Greek-style yoghurt to make the fresh cheese quickly and easily, but if you don’t have the time or inclination to strain yoghurt, ricotta is a good substitute.

I absolutely adore roast fennel, finding it almost addictive. I always blanch it (and red onion) beforehand – it makes the roasting time shorter and ensures a sweet and tender result. Toast may seem like a cold-weather comfort but, as a massive toast fan, I’m always on the look-out for good summertime options, and this one fits the bill, I think. That said, it would work equally well without the toast, perhaps with some cooked green beans added to make it a little more substantial.


Quantity Ingredient
2 large heads chicory
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 small fennel bulbs
1 red onion
1/2 orange, juiced
2 sprigs of basil
sea salt
black pepper
4 thick slices toast of your choice, to serve

For the ‘silk weaver’s brain’

Quantity Ingredient
310g greek-style yoghurt
1/2 banana shallot
4 sprigs of tarragon
small handful flat-leaf parsley
6 sprigs of mint
small handful sorrel, (optional)
3 lovage leaves, (optional)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar


  1. Start with the fresh cheese – if you have time, it’s a good idea to get this going in advance. Put the yoghurt into a fine sieve set over a bowl and leave to drain for a few hours, if possible, or just while you get everything else done.
  2. Preheat the oven to 200°C with a large baking tray inside so that it heats up. Put a large pan of salted water on to boil.
  3. Trim the chicory, discarding any bruised outer leaves. Take about four leaves from each head and set these aside for later, then quarter each head of chicory lengthwise and put in a bowl. Add a generous glug of olive oil, season with salt and pepper and toss to coat. Remove the hot baking tray from the oven, carefully tip in the chicory and return to the oven.
  4. Now trim the fennel, cut in half lengthwise and then cut each half into three wedges. Peel the onion, cut in half and then cut each half into four wedges. Drop the fennel into the pan of boiling salted water and cook for a minute, then add the onion and cook for another 3 minutes, or until the vegetables yield slightly to the tip of a knife. Drain well, toss in some more olive oil and then add to the baking tray, giving the chicory a little shake at the same time. Return to the oven and leave everything to roast for 15–20 minutes, or until golden and sweet.
  5. While the vegetables are roasting, finely chop the shallot and all the herbs for the ‘silk weaver’s brain’. Put them in a bowl with the olive oil and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper, then stir in the strained yoghurt, which should be quite firm by now, and amalgamate thoroughly. Check the seasoning and adjust if needed.
  6. When the roast vegetables are ready, tip them into a large bowl and add the orange juice, along with some more salt and pepper and another splash of olive oil if necessary. Throw in the reserved raw chicory leaves, perhaps tearing any larger ones in half, then tear in the basil leaves and stir everything about.
  7. Spoon the tasty juices from the bowl onto the toast and follow with the roast veg, then top with generous dollops of the ‘silk weaver’s brain’.
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