It's not always easy get excited about winter vegetables. Yet when you're standing in the field with Paolo Manzan, the owner of a small organic farm just 20 miles north of Venice called Nonno Andrea, as he cradles a head of just-harvested radicchio, you may start to question why you're so eager for spring asparagus and peas in the first place.
Radicchio, an Italian relative of chicory that's available from late fall through the winter, is rapidly becoming commonplace in the kitchens of chefs and home cooks who have fallen for its bitter, pungent taste. Yet Manzan isn't growing just any radicchio. He's one of the few growing true Radicchio Rosso di Treviso, one of five varieties of radicchio native to Italy that is of protected geographical indication (Indicazione Geografica Protetta or IGP). To obtain this certification the product must originate from a specific region, and its quality, reputation, and characteristics must be able to be traced back to its geographical origin. This vegetable is so highly celebrated by the Italian people that it also has its own consortium of 140 members whose aim is to protect and promote the product while educating consumers. Manzan has been the president of the consortium since 2009.
Nonna Andrea was founded in 1991 when Manzan and his wife Sonia were looking for a a lifestyle change that was more in tune with nature. The farm is located in the small village of Villorba, in the province of Treviso, and composed of roughly 125 acres. While the farm grows a variety of fruits and vegetables—along with maintaining Merlot and Prosecco vineyards, beehives for the production of organic honey, and a small cultivation of hops for beer production in collaboration with a neighboring brewery—the heart of their winter production is radicchio.
Manzan says there are three ingredients that make Radicchio Rosso di Treviso so unique—"earth, time and knowledge." As an IGP product, it must be cultivated in the countryside of 24 municipalities in the region of Veneto within the provinces of Treviso, Venice, and Padua. Traditional seeds are planted in pots to bloom before the seedlings are planted in the fields at the end of July, where they grow organically without chemical fertilizers. Two harvest times allow for two different varieties of Radicchio Rosso di Treviso. Harvested straight from the ground in September and cleaned, the Precoce variety has deep purple leaves, a mild bitterness, and a shape similar to Belgian endive.
Treviso's second harvest, the Tardivo variety, is a bit more unique. "It's the only one that doesn't leave the field and come to the table, but it still needs a long manufacturing process," says Manzan. "The cultivation is combined with knowledge about the craft." The second harvest always begins in November after at least two frosts. For the untrained eye the plants actually look overgrown, brown, and dead. Yet the magic happens after harvest, when the plants undergo whitening. The roots of the plants are soaked in 60°F water for 14 to 20 days under a thick tarp to maintain darkness. During this time photosynthesis stops due to lack of sunlight, but because of the warmth of the water, the middle of the plant sprouts and whitens. The outer leaves are stripped and what's left is a radicchio with more pronounced white ribs and deep purple finger-like leaves. This late variety has a stronger flavor and because of the additional labor involved, is considered to be more valuable and thus more expensive.
Both varieties of Radicchio Rosso di Treviso add brightness and color to an often drab array of winter vegetables and a bitter kick that is both welcomed and slightly addictive. Look for it at Whole Foods and specialty markets like Dean & Deluca and Eataly, if you're lucky enough to be within distance of one of its two U.S. branches in Chicago or New York. It's at its sharpest raw, in salads such as this bittersweet salad, where it maintains its fierce bite. Yet with a bit of cooking it mellows out to become tame and balanced like in radicchio risotto, sausage and radicchio pizza or farro with radicchio, prosciutto and orange. Or just enjoy it on its on, roasted in the oven with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. Maybe winter isn't so bad after all.