NOT LETTUCE, NOT CABBAGE
Radicchio is the bitter vegetable that resembles a colorful head of cabbage or lettuce, but is actually a kind of chicory. It is the Italian name for a large group of red chicory with white veins and deep red-purple leaves that form a round or elongated head. Because of their outstanding position in Italian cuisine, they are very popular in salads, soups, risotto, pasta and pizza. There are five principal types of radicchio, named after the cities in the northern Italian region of Veneto, where most of them are grown.
ROSSO DI CHIOGGIA often referred to as Palla Rossa (red ball), are the best known and most widespread type of radicchio in the world. It has the usual cabbage-like leaf head, a slightly astringent taste and is available in stores all year round.
ROSSO DI VERONA is said to have originated in the agricultural areas around the city of Verona in the middle to the end of the 18th century.
ROSA DEL VENETO is a radicchio very similar in appearance to Rosso di Verona, but bright pink in color, instead of red.
VARIEGATO DI CASTELFRANCO is called “The Tulip of Winter” because of its pronounced tulip-like shape. The colorful Castelfranco is the most refined and elegant.
ROSSO DI TREVISO TARDIVO is the forefather of all cultivated radicchio vari- eties that started it all. Treviso is great for cooking, as it has evolved over the decades to offer a firmer texture and flavor.
TREVISO PRECOCE (precoce means early) is the younger sibling of Treviso Tardivo. While Tardivo requires imbianchiamento to be blanched to achieve its final shape, Treviso Precoce does not need to be stored in the dark to develope deep red leaves and thick, white core. Radicchio is just as easy to prepare as chicory, but has a distinctive bitter taste that becomes milder when cooked, so it appeals to a niche market for those who see bitterness as a welcome addition to their kitchen. Thinly sliced, it’s a great addition to crispy cabbage salads. When frying, grilling or searing in olive oil, it becomes considerably softer and is a delicious side dish or can be added to other dishes. It owes its characteristic bitterness to its naturally occurring chemical compounds that are released when the vegetables are cut or chewed. However, since these bitter substances are water-soluble, the bitterness can be reduced by soaking the cut leaves in water.
Many types of radicchio are more expensive because of the high cost of growing. Similar to rhubarb, the red radicchio is kept in a dark environment, which re- moves all or almost all the chlorophyll pigments from the plant. This brings out the intense red color of the leaf and a certain crispness. The health benefits of radicchio cannot be denied. The list of nutrients is huge, rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, plus a lot of flavonoids and anthocyanins, which are powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents.
Although radicchio looks like a culinary newcomer to the local markets, it’s been around for millennial. It is an integral part of the local farming tradition and first appeared in the mid-15th century in the Italian regions of Veneto and Trentino where it had already become a specialty around 1900. We owe the ruby red color to the Belgian agronomist Francesco Van den Borre, who in 1860 introduced a new agricultural and gardening technique called imbianchimento (lightening) to create the dark red leaves we see today.
ROSSO DI TREVISO
Radicchio Rosso di Treviso (PGI) entered the register of protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications. This variety impresses with its rather elongated heads, the intense dark red color with white stripes, a crunchy texture and an unmistakably slightly tart taste. It is grown exclusively in a small area in north-east Italy, namely in a few communities around the cities of Treviso, Padua and Venice, where it can benefit from the numerous sources in the region.
After the harvest, the radicchio is cleaned and the outer leaves are removed. They are then collected in bundles or placed in nets or boxes and carefully stored to prevent damage.Then the bleaching process begins, which gives the radicchio its unique color and crispness. Its stems are placed in dark tanks and soaked in local spring water to maintain a constant temperature in order to awaken the plant from hibernation and encourage new growth.
The darkness in the tank prevents the production of chlorophyll, whereby the leaves are never allowed to touch the water. The outer leaves are then removed, and the stem cut off. This requires a great deal of sensitivity, because the Radicchio Rosso di Treviso only gets its elegant, characteristic appearance by carefully removing the outer segments.
This article was first published in Issue 15