The Secret Radicchio SocietyJune 4, 2012
I’m sitting at my mother’s dining table finishing my salad, thinking about life without these special green leaves.
Growing up in 1960s’ Sydney eating Italian food that my immigrant parents served, I’d hardly tasted the popular iceberg lettuce non-Italians ate. My father wasn’t a natural gardener, but one thing he did well was growing and harvesting bitter greens from the chicory family.
His specialty was a type of small-leafed, pale green radicchio grown in and around our hometown – Trieste – in northeastern Italy. These greens weren’t available at greengrocers, so most of our family friends from that Italian region grew it here in Australia: those who didn’t always had friends willing to donate some.
There’s not much you can do with this type of radicchio but eat it with vinaigrette. My father, however, chose to up the ante and sometimes added finely chopped, raw garlic. Being a non-Anglo preteen, I was anti-garlic and refused to buy into its alleged worm killing properties, so I discarded each tiny piece. If my father really suspected we had worms, he could have made life easier by trying a folk medicine remedy: a couple of garlic cloves in each shoe, to be absorbed through the skin. Slower, but kinder!
Realising I needed a creative way of eating the greens, dad added quartered hard-boiled eggs to the salad. I loved the way they dissolved into the vinaigrette, coating the leaves with a powdery yellow shine. Once all leaves were eaten, there was always a tussle for rights to sop up the liquid at the bottom of the bowl with crusty bread.
We stopped eating it for many years as different types of salad greens were available and Italian families no longer had the passion to grow it. Occasionally, in the 1970s, it would appear at barbeques and we’d swoop on it like seagulls, or we’d find it at family-run restaurants specialising in Venetian and northeastern Italian cuisine.
About eight years ago I had a craving for it and suggested to my mother I might try growing it in her backyard. I tracked down an online seed supplier who markets it in Australia as “Cicoria zuccherina di Trieste”. The term ‘zuccherina’ refers to its sweetness, but more accurately it has a pleasant bitter taste, especially if it’s eaten while still young and tender.
The radicchio patch – dedicated to my late father – has fed us continuously as it re-grows after each harvest. I sow it every two years after the leaves become a bit hard and hairy, and have my hands full protecting it from heavy rain and keeping two family cats from stretching out on it to bask in the sun. It needs watering every day – twice in dry summer weather – and my mother has become chief waterer.
Greengrocers now sell many varieties of chicory, endive and radicchio such as the red Treviso and Verona, but don’t stock the type we eat, probably as it’s too delicate to withstand the handling and transport. In Trieste they are spoilt for choice, with up to four varieties sold daily at outdoor markets around the city.
It’s such a special part of the meals I have when I visit my mother twice per week; the table looks bare in the two months that the radicchio is in the early growing phase and too small to harvest.
I think I need to become a fully-fledged market gardener and stagger my crops to enjoy it year-round.