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The Secret Radicchio Society

June 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.

Growing radicchio from Trieste

The radicchio patch in all its glory

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.

Cicoria Zuccherina di Trieste con uova

The fruits of my labour

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.

 

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15 comments

  1. The first crop, the famous “Primo Taglio” was considered the finest of all Radicchio


    • Yes, it’s quite a buildup to the primo taglio. All that effort, covering the tiny leaves when there’s heavy rain, praying for sun, regular watering to prevent bitterness … but all worth it in the end.


  2. […] I’m a late bloomer, much to my mother’s delight. Neither of my parents were good gardeners, only growing an essential patch of north-east Italian radicchio and various herbs (see earlier post Secret Radicchio Society). […]


  3. My late father’s garden has kept our family supplied continuously for many years since seeds became available in Australia. Before that (maybe in the 1970s) we also did not have any apart from the brown paper bag version smuggled in from Italy (once by my grandmother)! You have a bumper crop. I am still trying unsuccessfully to grow it on my inner city terrace. Any tips?


  4. Tips? Lots of TLC. Needs 4-6 hours of sunlight per day and watering in full sunlight helps too – apparently it stops it becoming hard and hairy later. I started w/good manure in the soil and every two years I turn it over and start again. There’s lots of panic however when it’s still sprouting and there’s heavy rain. We cover it and treat it like a baby. The patch is at my mother’s garden (unfort. I don’t have one!) and is about 2m x 1m which is plenty for our needs. Good luck Paola.


  5. Finally I got fresh seeds. My old in the ground radicio is going to seed. When is the best time for sowing (Geelong, Victoria)??? Just about Christmas now….can I still sow?? In antecipation..thanks.


    • Yes, I think you can sow the radicchio now. I sowed mine four weeks ago (in Sydney) and have just cut the first crop today. It likes lots of sunshine and watering twice per day if it’s hot and dry. Good luck and thanks for stopping by my blog. Ambra


  6. […] Italian cuisine: in Russian salads, alongside boiled meats and with radicchio (see earlier post on The Secret Radicchio Society). Sometimes I think the famous stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ film A Night at the Opera […]


  7. We grow the Cicoria zuccherina di Trieste, seeds given by a friend and prefer to eat the leaves young and fresh. I love your suggestion of serving it with (soft) hard boiled eggs and a vinaigrette because we were having it mixed with our salad and the children would discard these leaves. Great blog; I will have a good look and see if you offer any other serving suggestions for the cicoria.


    • Hi Merryn, thanks for your compliments re my blog. I haven’t posted any other serving suggestions for the zuccherina di Trieste, but another way of eating it is in a salad with borlotti beans and vinaigrette (preferably dried ones – soaked and cooked, but tinned ones will do too). Delicious!


  8. Grazie we love borlotti beans and this is a great idea. I am getting lazy and buying tinned ones these days but dried and cooked offer a better result. I have subscribed to your blog as you are a good foodie and a great writer with beautiful photographs. Lo apprezzo molto 😀 Merryn


    • Thanks Merryn. Hope you’ll continue to enjoy my posts – they’re mostly food-related but occasionally I’ll pop something in that’s about gardening or design, but always with an Italian twist!


  9. My mamma’s go to remedy was vinegar. If you had anything wrong with you it was vinegar that would cure it!! I was afraid to say anything was wrong for fear that the vinegar bottle would come out.


    • Ah yes, we had a bit of vinegar action too. Bumps and lumps were always dabbed with a generous splotch of vinegar and then wrapped in a cloth so the bruise would develop and then heal.


  10. Here in Vancouver at the annual festa Trevisani they have a Radicchio contest. The contestants are beautiful and some are massive. They also serve it with dinner. I hope you are still growing your radicchio😎



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