As a member of the chicory family of vegetables, radicchio has steadily grown in popularity throughout North America since the 1980s, but its cultivation goes back a long way before that.
Radicchio’s cultivation can be traced back as far as Ancient Egyptian times, though it is well documented that it has been farmed in the Veneto and Treviso regions of Italy from the C15th. Like any other vegetable, radicchio has many varieties, each with their own exquisite characteristics.
The round headed Chioggia Red is the most commonly eaten radicchio in Toronto and originally hailed from the Chioggia region of Italy. This tight, round, orange-sized head looks more like a cabbage than a lettuce. This vegetable is often found in mixed leaf bags of salad, adding important color and bitter flavor.
The Terviso Red precoce variety comes into season first, generally from the end of summer. It has an elongated shape, is dark reddish in color with white center ribs. This lettuce is renowned for its sweet flavor.
Similar to the Treviso is the Veron Red, which has a slightly fuller shape, making it ideal for grilling. The Castelfranco Veined variety is a cross between Treviso and endive and has yellowish-green leaves with wine-red stripes.
The Tardivo radicchio descends from the Treviso variety and is harvested after the first frosts with its main yield period being between November and March. More elongated with a more pronounced vein than Treviso it undergoes a special ‘imbianchimento’, or whitening production process. During their late Fall harvest, the outer leaves are discarded and the Tardivo are packed into special containers. These are placed in the dark and the roots are left sitting in warm, circulating spring water (15ºC approx.) for several days. After about 2 weeks, the plants have started to grow new roots and new leaves and take on their typical purple characteristics.
A minimal amount of Radicchio is grown in the Quebec region of Canada, but the majority of the Radicchio eaten in Toronto is grown in the US- California in particular, with small amounts coming from Florida and Arizona. Mexico and Chile produces and exports enough to the region to uphold a year-round supply of the crop.
California is home to some of the world’s largest radicchio producers. In the Monterey area alone, US$ 19.3 million was produced in 2011. 3500 acres were solely devoted to the cultivation of Radicchio.
In 2010, the area produced 10,900 tonnes and 2011 yielded a healthy 11,200 tonnes, resulting in values approximating US$1700 per unit tonne.
We can see that there is no reference to any Californian Radicchio export going to Europe. This is because Italy alone produces over 200K metric tonnes per year. Southern France comes second to this, but its yields are nowhere near as large as those of its Italian neighbor. Italy’s main crop is Radicchio di Chioggia as it has a marketing season spanning ten months. Large Italian growers include PEF srl (formerly Perviani Frutta), who produce 2,000 tonnes of Radicchio per year, of which the Chioggia contributes 1,800 tonnes.
Of course, Italy and the US are not the only major growers of Radicchio. More recently, Radicchio from the Lam Dong area of Vietnam has been selling for US$800-1100 per ton and farmers in the Sirmour district of India have realized the potential market for the crop and are finding purchasers for it in the 5* hotels and restaurants of Delhi and Mumbai.
Before making its way to the Ontario Food Terminal, radicchio is carefully packed at source using hydro vacuum cooling technology- also known as ‘precooling’. Here the radicchio are placed in a cooling chamber on palettes, then, air is removed from the chamber using a vacuum pump. As the produce reaches its flashpoint, it is sprayed with water to stop the vegetable drying out, a sudden surface water vaporization results, producing a localized cooling effect due to the energy required to make the transition from liquid to vapor H2O.
After this, the crop is usually trucked to its destinations in Canada. For Royal Rose, the buyer usually organizes his own shipping. There appear to be brokers for the vegetable, but Royal Rose sells direct to the supplier in Canada.
Wholesale prices for Ontario from the USA have decreased a little in the last few years. In 2013 the highest priced for radicchio was USD $17.81 while in 2015 the highest priced was USD $15.02. In 2015 the lowest priced radicchio was USD $11.68 down to USD $14.35 from 2013.
It is worth noting that Treviso reached prices of US$ 23-24 in February 2015. This is significantly higher than the round-headed Chioggia variety the prices above refer to.
Of course radicchio is most commonly used raw as a salad vegetable, adding color and contrast to other traditional green leaves, but it can also be served grilled and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, or finely chopped and added to stuffing for poultry and other meats. Some Italian restaurants even use it as a filling for ravioli. There are many ways to utilize this delicious and versatile vegetable.