Photo ©Evie Saffron Strands
There are two main varieties of cultivated chicory – the Endives which come in curly and broad-leaved varieties (which we will cover in a future bulletin) and the Radicchio which is the most colourful member of the chicory family and the one we focus on here.
Radicchi is an Italian word for weeds that grow wild in the Mediterranean region. The Radicchio, and other members of the chicory family (Cichorium) that come through our doors are cultivated varieties of these. The farming world has worked for thousands of years to reduce bitterness in crops including lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers and aubergines. But some crops are still prized for this quality and Radicchio is one. Many cultures take bitterness as a signal of medicinal value.
Each variety of Radicchio is named for one of the towns in the Italian Veneto where the crop has PGI (Protected geographical indication) status: Chioggia, round and white-ribbed like a small red cabbage; Treviso, the ‘Prococe’ type having wide burgundy leaves forming a loose head and the later ‘Tardivo’ type that has more tightly packed leaves that curl into a twist at the top; Verona, smaller with deep red leaves and a loose oval shape; and Castelfranco, its creamy yellow rose-like leaves splashed with wine-red being perhaps the most eye-catching. In Radicchio, the extent of bitter compounds varies with Treviso containing most and Chioggia and Castelfranco the least. The technique of blanching, growing in cold and dark conditions, (imbianchimento in Italian) brings out the red hues in what would otherwise be a largely green-leaved crop.
Served as a salad leaf, Radicchio pairs beautifully with orange. The chef Florence Knight has a recipe in her book ‘One’ for mildly astringent Castelfranco mixed with prosciutto and toasted hazelnuts and dressed with an orange vinaigrette. Cooking Radicchio intensifies its bitter qualities and adds a delicious counterpoint to rich, fatty foods – just think of a bacon and dandelion salad. Subjected to a little charring on a grill, a more bitter Radicchio like Treviso pairs wonderfully well with a soft, creamy cheese like ricotta, goat’s curd or a blue cheese, maybe Gorgonzola, Stilton or Stichelton. Simply chop the radicchio into quarters, coat lightly in olive oil, season and grill until lightly browned and softened then serve scattered with pieces of the cheese and a vinaigrette dressing. A few toasted and salted walnuts wouldn’t go amiss.