We often attribute the name of radicchio salad to any type of red salad with elongated leaves we happen to see on the vegetable counter.
In actual fact, there are many different varieties of radicchio but today we shall be dealing with the most noble of all, the late-growing Treviso radicchio salad PGI (Protected Geographical Indication).
What Treviso radicchio PGI is and where it grows
The term radicchio salad refers to a type of vegetable belonging to the chicory family, which can be traced back as far as the late 1500s. Late-growing Treviso radicchio is a highly valued and expensive product (priced on average from 6 to 10 Euro per kg), but when you realise the amount of work that goes into its production, you will understand why.
Only the variety that comes from one of the 24 municipal districts of the specified region that spreads over the Italian provinces of Treviso, Padua and Venice may be called authentic late-growing red Treviso radicchio. Compared to the “early-growing” variety, it is less bitter, crisper and its leaves are more spear-shaped.
This prized vegetable, called the king of winter, needs plenty of water and low temperatures and must grow on the “line of natural spring water” dividing the upper and lower plains. It is here, from under a layer of gravel, that the purest ground waters of the Dolomite mountains flow to the surface spontaneously.
The second essential factor is the cold because it is only after the second frost that a radicchio salad plant is entitled to show the PGI quality label.
How Treviso radicchio is grown and processed
First of all, the radicchio salad seeds are planted in nursery beds. The tiny chicory leaves that sprout in summer are green and tender; after about one month they are transplanted into the ground where harvesting will start in November with the first frost and continue uninterruptedly until all the crops in the field are used up.
The plant is still large and full of dark leaves, apart from the heart which is already red in colour. Once the dark outside leaves and the soil has been removed, the plants are tied into large bundles and immersed in tanks filled with spring water discharged from the river Sile for the final phase of production, called whitening.
In the course of these 20/25 days, the radicchio matures, its roots turn white and assimilate the nutritional substances of the water. In their tanks, the bundles are kept in the dark at a constant temperature of 13 degrees and the plants continue to sprout as they absorb the properties of the spring water.
The whiteness of its central stem, its red tips, the crispness and inimitably delicious flavour are the distinctive characteristics of this unique product.
The best way to eat Treviso radicchio
Unlike other leaf vegetables used as salad ingredients, Treviso radicchio lends itself perfectly to being cooked. Its crisp texture and pleasingly bitter taste, which varies with each forkful, confer a wide spectrum of sensations to the palate.
Apart from its obvious use in salads, it can be eaten raw with fresh and mature cheeses, accompanied with a drizzle of honey and a few walnuts.
It is excellent when cut lengthwise and grilled, dressed with oil, salt and pepper. It pairs very well with sweet vegetables such as pumpkin, carrots, onion, potato and beetroot. It can be made into jams and jellies for use in desserts of all kinds.
According to the people of Treviso, the best way to enjoy it is in a delicious risotto creamed with a medium mature Asiago cheese and perfectly paired with a Raboso del Piave - an autochthonous varietal - such as a Gelsaia Cecchetto.
Where to buy Treviso Radicchio
If you wish to try an authentic Treviso radicchio PGI but do not foresee a visit to Italy in the near future, here is a firm which not only produces it but sells it online to 28 European countries: delivery is guaranteed within 24/48 hours to ensure that all the nutritional values of the radicchio – fibre, mineral salts, polyphenols, vitamins and amino acids – remain intact, not to mention the all-important bitter substances that are so good for the liver.