Fruit and Veg

A chef's guide to radicchio

Written by Tom Moggach
January 20, 2020

One of nature's wonders - radicchio is a stunning ingredient on the plate. Here's the definitive guide.

Key facts

- There are various radicchios, all types of chicory.

- Common varieties such as round radicchio and red endive are widely grown. But the more niche varieties, such as Tardivo or Castelfranco, are almost exclusively grown in the Veneto region of Italy where they have a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) designation.

- Some radicchios are 'forced'. This is a process whereby they are deprived of light which enhances the red colouration and reduces the green of the chlorophyll.

- D & J Hayward in Wiltshire is an example of a UK grower of standard round 'Chioggia'.

Varieties of radicchio

There are six key varieties of radicchio, although you may also find rarer ones such as yellow radicchio.

TARDIVO

The harvest of Tardivo, the later variety pictured below, begins in November after one or two frosts. (The cold snaps benefit the plants). The season then continues to late March. Scroll down to 'Growing and harvesting' to see the story of how it's grown.

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Tardivo Trio

CASTELFRANCO

Castelfranco is famous for its speckled (a.k.a. variegated) leaves that dazzle after a period of blanching. Traditionally, the plant is harvested after the first frosts then forced in sand to improve colour and flavour. This plant is said to be a cross between radicchio and escarole.

(These are often eaten raw but here's a cooking tip: dip the leaves first in a mixture of white wine and water and then wrap a parcel of cheese before baking in the oven.)

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Castelfranco

ROSA / PINK

Pink radicchio, which is also known as Rosa del Veneto, is known for its gorgeous, pale pink leaves. The main season - for sand forced crops - is around November to March although you may find modern varieties outside of this window. Traditionally, this plant is forced in sand to improve colour texture and flavour. However some growers use modern varieties which do not require this process.

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Rosa

ROSA DEL FRIULI

Rosa del Friuli, also known as Rosella di Lusia, is becoming increasingly fashionable. This stunning plant, with its jagged leaves, is in season from mid December until mid February.

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Rosa Del Friuli

GRUMULO

These are harvested straight from the field after the first frosts and typically eaten raw. The outer leaves are stripped off leaving these beautiful rosettes.

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Grumolo

PRECOCE

Precoce is an earlier variety. The main harvest period is from early September to late November, although it can be grown all year round using techniques such as fleecing.

Precoce does not undergo the same forcing process in water as Tardivo. The outer leaves are tied up in the field, shielding the heart from sunlight.

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Precoce

Growing and harvesting

Here's the process for tardivo, which is unique to this plant. Top Italian producer Claudio Bellia grows nearly half a dozen different radicchios, a type of chicory, with total annual production of 500-600 tonnes from a patchwork farm of 200 hectares.

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Tardivo Before After

The plants are harvested from the fields and stored temporarily in sheds.

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Tardivo Trolley

Next, the workers pack the plants into special metal crates so that the roots can be immersed in water in the dark for 15-20 days. This nutrient-rich pure spring water is pumped from a natural lake deep underground and emerges at around 16-17° Celsius.

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Tardivo Shed Crates

This stage encourages the heart of the plant to grow without exposure to sunlight and is called "imbianchimento" (whitening). The inner leaves lose their green colour and slight bitterness, which derives from the chlorophyll, and turn their distinctive shade of red and become somewhat sweeter as a result.

After a couple of weeks, the radicchio is taken to the pack house, where workers strip off the outer leaves.

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Sorting Tardivo
Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Trimming Tardivo Root

The roots of the plants are trimmed to 8-10cm and then the radicchios are cleaned in water.

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Tardivo Floating Water

In the Market

Standard round radicchio is sold by many wholesalers but for Tardivo, Castelfranco and Rosa you should enquire with The French Garden, European Salad Company and Covent Garden Supply.

Kitchen inspiration

In Italy, classic recipes include: raw as a salad (dressed with a little olive oil and salt, and occasionally vinegar); in risotto; with sausage and polenta; grilled Tardivo or Precoce wrapped in bacon.

You'll also find radicchio on pizza, in lasagna or with squid, which is a traditional Christmas dish.

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Risotto

Here is an involtini - radicchio wrapped in pancetta - from Bacchette e Pomodoro:

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Involtini

At time of writing, chefs using radicchio in innovative ways here in the UK include charred January King, tardivo, radish and miso dressing at The Ninth in Fitzrovia.

At Cub in Hackney, they compress the radicchio in buttermilk, roast, season and combine with a green sauce made from Cornish young nettle tops, watercress and three cornered-leek:

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Cub Restaurant

In restaurants such as San Martino in the Veneto, radicchio is given the full Michelin treatment. The first picture below shows radicchio wrapped around "Pastin", a local sausage:

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Meat Dish

Here's radicchio used for a tortellini stuffing and served in a borlotti cream at Pizzeria La Finestra in Aachen, Germany:

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Tortellini

And a colourful salad with labne, blood orange, pinenuts, smoky citrus vinaigrette and za’atar from Peter Som.

Fruit And Veg Market Chefs Guide To Radicchio Peter Som
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