Italy's enchanting winter vegetable.
What makes this unique version of leaf chicory so exquisitely mesmerising?
Radicchio d Treviso is planted in July but appears in late November. There's a process to the formation of its red and white tendrils which takes time and delicate steps.
With a slender, curvy leaf, Radicchio di Treviso is a thing of beauty meriting a prestigious place in northern Italy's culinary winter bounty.
During hard times, Italians would naturally head to the hills and fields to supplement their larder. Dishes and recipes formed through the years and now, seasonal wild, edible plants have become part of traditional regional diets. In rural parts of Italy, typically the grandmothers head out at sunrise with wicker baskets, they quietly and calmly walk the pastures and path-sides looking for funghi in the forest floor or picking edible shoots in the spring fields. There are many erbette spontanee - wild, edible plants, which can be harvested according to the seasons of the year and the elderly know the patches they grow in, returning time and time again.
The plants, flowers or mushrooms are taken home to be carefully cleaned and cooked, often ending up bottled or frozen for later use. This thrifty approach to storing seasonal food is what some say drove Radicchio di Treviso to be harvested and stored in dark barns. No one is sure of how the process originated, however, it's now a protected I.G.P. product of strict production regulation within the specified provinces of Treviso, Padua and Venice.
Radicchio seeds are sown in late July and the spindly green plants harvested late November after the first frost, allowing time for cross-pollination of its stunning corn-flower blue flowers. Radicchio di Treviso has always been grown beside the clear spring-fed waters of the Sile River, vital to further production and to its geographically protected status.
After harvesting, the bushy plants are trimmed of their outer leaves, cleaned and packed into crates or nets which are delicately placed in dark tanks with their roots flowing in spring water at a temperature of 15 degrees for 15-20 days. This process is known as imbianchamento - whitening or bleaching. The radicchio plants are tricked out of their winter lethargy but the darkness deters any green leaves to grow thus forcing the characteristic white flesh to thicken and sweeten, becoming crunchy.
The plants are stripped of their old green foilage and trimmed down to the dark red hearts we know. They are ready for sale as the 'Flower of Treviso'.
The Chicory Family
The chicory family excels in diversity of colour, taste and shape.
Endive (Cichorium endivia var. crispum) - a frilly light-green leaf, often found in salad mixes, called frisée. Bitter in taste, endive can be sauteed and eaten warm, gaining some sweetness.
Escarole (Cichorium endivia var. latifolia) - a light-green lettuce-looking plant with a stiff rib. It is delicious chopped and braised with garlic to be added to a bean soup for a bitter edge to the dish.
Belgian endive (Cichorium intybus) - pale green, bitter and bulb-shaped, known as French Endive or Chicory, this plant is also harvested and stored to be planted later, producing a thick bud we know as Belgian Endive.
Radicchio (Cichorium intybus) - radicchio types claim their names from their origins, they range in shape but maintain their characteristic deep red colour, even in a variegated form:
Early Red Radicchio from Treviso - Radicchio rosso precoce di Treviso - elongated, firm, crisp and bitter, used in salads and sometimes grilled. This is one of the first Radiccio we find in the markets with the harvest in September.
Variegated Radicchio from Castelfranco Radicchio variegato di Castelfranco - looking like a large flouncy rose, this salad variety is a cross between endive and Radicchio di Treviso. The purple variegations range in tone on the leaves which are almost white. With a sweeter taste, this radicchio is found until March.
Red Radicchio from Chioggia Radicchio rosso di Chioggia - with an early (precoce) and late (tardivo) version, Chioggia, a sea-side town near Venice, boasts their 'rose' which has a spherical compact shape of dark-red leaves veined in white, a favourite in winter salads.
Red Radicchio from Verona Radicchio rosso di Verona - similar to Radicchio Rossa Precoce di Treviso, this variety is also bulb-shaped but crunchier and available for longer, until April. Eaten raw and braised or grilled.
Late Red Radicchio from Treviso Radicchio rosso tardivo di Treviso - our Main Act!
Available until Spring due to its late harvest, it is less bitter in taste than Radicchio di Verona, for example. Eaten raw and cooked in many different dishes, the white pith has a creamy texture with a crunch.
Wild Radicchio - seeded in open fields, variegated versions are harvested as small tufts and used in baby-leaf salads.
This versatile vegetable is prepared both raw and cooked in many Veneto dishes:
In salads - winter salad: pomegranate seeds, orange pieces and finely- sliced fennel bulb. Dressed in orange juice, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Chopped finely as a tramezzino filling with soft cream cheese.
Wrapped in prosciutto crudo or sliced pancetta and baked, as an antipasto.
Grilled or roasted on a barbecue - dressed in olive oil and parmesan.
Sliced and added to scamorza cheese in a pastry case, as a quiche or in puff pastry as a pie.
Grilled and used as a pizza or bruschetta topping, pairing well with gorgonzola.
Sauteed into a risotto.
Grilled and layered into a lasagna or pasticcio.
Radicchio is known for its bitter twist and can be overpowering if not paired well. Once cooked, Radicchio di Treviso loses some sweetness and buttery-ness but gains a soft, palatable texture and a more defined bitter edge, perfectly accompanied by salty Speck or Prosciutto Crudo, for example.
While Radicchio di Treviso is cultivated to maintain more of the white flesh, resulting in a sweeter chicory. Its purple leafage contains the flavonoid Anthocyanin, Vitamin K and bitter Lactucopicrin that has analgesic and sedative effects. Radicchio and other bitter vegetables have been traditionally known to 'clean the blood', whether true or not this versatile chicory has high levels of carotenoids Lutein and Zeaxanthin, powerful antioxidants with anti-cancer properties.
If you'd love to sample the wares in true Italian style, Treviso celebrates their favourite winter veggie at the Antica Mostra del Radicchio di Treviso from December 8 -10, in piazza Borsa, Treviso. This festival has been held since 1900, halting only during the World Wars. Producers enter a friendly contest and three days of everything radicchio commence with workshops, tours, tastings and local products, not to mention food glorious food and wine, and beer, and cheese, and music of course.
Radicchio is Treviso's pride and joy but there is plenty of produce from this bountiful province in the north-eastern Veneto region. Treviso is a walled medieval city rich in heritage and busting in culture and charm, if you're ever near Venice, have a read of our blog post of what to see, do and taste in beautiful Treviso, a favoloso addition to your itinerary!