Garden to Table
April 26, 2009
Radicchio had always been popular in Italy – most of the varieties of the vegetable are named for regions there – but this gorgeous vegetable didn’t officially make a name for itself in the United States until the 1980s. That’s when Italians farmers Lucio Gomiero and Carlo Boscolo heard about the temperate growing conditions (coastal climate, extended growing season) in the Salinas Valley and decided to team up with Salinas Valley growers John Tamagni and A.W. Johnson & Son to test the American market.
The resulting Royal Rose, LLC is now the largest single producer of radicchio in the world. Dennis Donohue, Mayor of Salinas, California and President of Royal Rose, says that fundamentally, what put radicchio on the map was the packaged salad industry. The use of radicchio as a salad ingredient in bagged blends helped mainstream radicchio and boost customer familiarity. Royal Rose’s year round availability increased visibility as well.
“What I like about radicchio is its versatility. When it comes to flavor pairing, radicchio really fits the bill. Sweet accents like honey really complement the radicchio’s natural bitter essence; pungent accents like blue cheese greet the radicchio bold taste head on. And it works as both a salad item and as a cooking item, like spinach,” he says.
There are about 19 different varieties of radicchio, and of those, about six are commercially viable. Chioggia, with dark reddish-maroon leaves and a tight round head about the size of a grapefruit, and Treviso, milder and grown with an elongated head like Belgian endive, are the two most common varieties. Higher end varieties like the beautiful Castelfranco and Tardivo, the “winter flower,” have more limited availability.
“When you go into grocery stores in Italy, you routinely see all the different varieties,” says Donohue. “In the U.S., on the other hand, retailers usually stick to the more common ones because they need to get volume and they know how hard it is to introduce new items. However, radicchio over time has promise as a category and will continue to grow beyond specialties. There a certain romance to radicchio that I’ve always liked.”
Compared to other vegetables like cabbage and lettuce, radicchio is slightly wild, and plants head at different times. Radicchio grows best in loose fertile loams and muck soils, with seedlings planted 18 inches apart in rows eight to 10 inches apart. Planting to harvest (when the radicchio head is firm like iceberg lettuce) takes about 75 to 120 days.
Different varieties of radicchio require different weather conditions for optimal growth, so Donohue recommends paying close attention to seasonality when planting in the home garden. Harvested radicchio can then be stored in a perforated plastic bag for about three to four weeks in the refrigerator.
“Today, Americans routinely make salads the opening part of their meal. We think the next step is to change how Americans eat salad by introducing the idea of a warm salad, and expanding radicchio beyond the salad course to become a meal component,” says Dononhue.