Several radicchios now have geographical IGP status protecting them from "knockoffs"
Autumn has arrived and that means fresh radicchio. Some may know that this plant is related to the chicory family, but may not know the story of how radicchio came to be. According to the noted Roman Empire historian Pliny the Elder, it was the Egyptians who bred radicchio from wild chicory. Pliny the Elder also tells us that radicchio was used medicinally B.C. for insomnia and for cleansing the blood---whatever that means.
Modern cultivation of radicchio began in the 1500’s outside of Venice. It wasn’t, however, until the late 19th century that radicchio as we know it today was invented by a Belgian agronomist in the Venetian area. Re-engineering a process that was used to whiten Belgian endive, the scientist developed a complicated process that yielded deeply purple pigmented radicchio.
There are many different types of radicchio---it comes in several different shapes, sizes and colors. Most are named after the Italian town in which they were first propagated. The variety that is ubiquitous in the U.S. (maroon-colored and about the size and shape of a grapefruit) is called “Chioggia,” a coastal town just south of Venice. Radicchio di Treviso, on the other hand, resembles a large red Belgian endive. Both are now protected by the Italian government’s geographical laws …only radicchio grown in the respective towns can be sold with the town's name.
Radicchio di Treviso resembles a large red Belgian endive
If you are shopping in Italy, be aware that radicchio comes in colors other than reds and purples. For example, there are several white versions and there is even a green radicchio that looks exactly like lettuce. At a villa on Lake Como I made the mistake of grilling what I thought was romaine lettuce for dinner guests in hopes of making a grilled Caesar salad. Imagine my surprise when it turned into grilled radicchio with Caesar dressing. (Luckily, the dinner was a buffet in which the bitter radicchio played well with the sweet peppers of the main course chicken pepperonata. Grilling the radicchio also decreased its bitterness).
Green radicchio can masquerade as Romaine
While ancient civilizations long ago recognized the healthful benefits of radicchio, modern day scientists have confirmed its advantages for well-being. The dark purple pigments are a good source of antioxidants (similarly to the pigments in red wine.) There are also moderate amounts of several B vitamins, as well as minerals such as copper, iron, potassium and zinc.
Enjoy the sights and smells of autumn.