A Chicory to Dismantle Late-Stage Capitalism

Radicchio is having a moment in the U.S.

Italian radicchio is having a moment in the United States.

These bitter leafy vegetables, members of the chicory family, come in a spectrum of colors, shapes, textures, and levels of bitterness. Chicories make their appearance when it’s cold out — their growing season is typically mid-September to late-January (but in the Veneto region of Italy and the Pacific Northwest, which have similar climates, they can grow through March). Peculiar-looking things like Tardivo (which resembles a squid) and Castelfranco (which looks like a giant ruffly flower of pale yellow-green leaves that have been splattered with magenta pigment by an abstract expressionist) have been showing up on more farm stands, restaurant menus, and Instagram feeds in the past few months, garnering cult status in the niche vegetable category.

Interest in chicories is on the rise across the country, but in the Pacific Northwest, it’s at a fever pitch, with an abundance of unique radicchio varieties being grown there. Growers in the area have built a community around these obscure salad leaves by sharing all the information they can to help each other out. Now there are formal talks of forming an association to support one another and collectively market their radicchio.

Radicchio is challenging. It’s notoriously tricky to grow, otherworldly in appearance, and bitter, an off-putting flavor to many American palates — traits that don’t exactly lead a vegetable to commercial success. Of all the vegetables to rally for, why radicchio?

In Seattle, a group called Chicory Week organizes city-wide chicory celebrations — a week of events, dinners, and special dishes at many of the city’s restaurants — that lead up to their Sagra di Radicchio, a festival dedicated to the entire chicory family (which also includes endive, dandelion, and puntarelle/catalogna). The Sagra is an annual event for the public to meet growers, sample every type of chicory at their “raw bar,” and taste them in dishes made by many of the city’s favorite chefs. This event sells out. There’s a merch stand that carries a radicchio zine, enamel pins shaped like Chioggia radicchio, and a jewel-toned selection of heads of fresh chicories; those sell out, too. If only every vegetable could have people campaigning for it like this.

Radicchio is challenging. It’s notoriously tricky to grow, otherworldly in appearance, and bitter, an off-putting flavor to many American palates — traits that don’t exactly lead a vegetable to commercial success. Of all the vegetables to rally for, why radicchio?

“Radicchio is really punk,” Chandler Briggs of Hayshaker Farm in Walla Walla, Washington, said as he made his case for the chicory campaign. “It’s working against the corporate agricultural system that’s not sustainable. That system is emptying out the Colorado River before it hits the ocean by growing all the food out in the desert in Arizona and California. Radicchio localizes and decentralizes the power of the salad industry. It’s also delicious.”

In addition, chicories bring diversity to the winter vegetable lineup, which mostly consists of brassicas and storage-friendly root vegetables, and give farmers a fresh product to help generate income in otherwise lean months. Chicory Week founder Jason Salvo, of Local Roots Farm, in Duvall, Washington, noted that “if people can get a radicchio salad, a local salad in January — and there’s a global warming component — we’re not trucking up romaine from the imperial valley, we’re keeping our dollars local, so we’re building our local economy.”

Choosing chicories over lettuce in the winter supports small local businesses and better farming practices. “This is the crop that’s going to dismantle late-stage capitalism,” Salvo said, only semi-jokingly.

Salvo maintains his stance, even as the world is turned upside down from COVID-19. “It’s so hard to believe that two months and a lifetime ago I was in Northern Italy with this amazing group of people,” he wrote on his Instagram account this week:

…It’s the broken economic system that’s at the heart of what’s wrong in the world right now. Radicchio represents a localized economy, low input production and distribution, producers selling directly to their customers. I’m worried about what could happen because our world relies so heavily on exploited labor and a super leveraged global supply chain. When this is all over, I sure hope we focus our efforts on re-localizing our economies so we can mitigate the major disruptions we will see the next time we get a pandemic or natural disaster.

Cassie Woolhiser, another founder of Chicory Week (and the person behind @chicoryweek on Instagram) cited “the fact that it’s absolutely stunning” as a galvanizing force. To the uninitiated, many Italian radicchio look like decorative flowers; it’s hard to believe something so pretty is actually edible. “It’s a bit of a supermodel with an exotic name in that way. Hard to introduce without seeing it, but very hard to forget after you’ve seen one that speaks to you.” She’s not wrong — they really do leave a lasting impression. Not that everything is about looks, but it’s impossible not to be swayed by their beauty.

If you want to make an offbeat vegetable famous, education for growers and consumers is required. Lane Selman, agricultural researcher at Oregon State University and founder of the Culinary Breeding Network, explained that growers need to learn “how to grow radicchio better, and just how to grow it, period, because a lot of people don’t know how.” There isn’t a lot of helpful growing information out there, and there’s hardly any in English. When thinking about the consumer, she said, “we can’t just have a lot of radicchio available; we also need to tell people how to use it. A lot of people eat it raw, and get all freaked out because it tastes bitter. If you don’t communicate that, and tell them they can pair it with certain things to balance the flavor, or that certain varieties are milder, they end up thinking they don’t like any of it.”

Slated for January, 2020, Selman planned a trip to the Veneto region of Italy, where radicchio originated. With the help of Myrtha Zierock, a farmer based in the region, she booked a week of visiting farms, seed growers, and processing facilities. She invited two farmers, a chef, and a photographer to join her. “You always need more than one farmer, because there’s a lot of information to get. They work in different growing conditions, they ask different questions, and they get crazy in-depth.” A chef needs to be present to take note of all the ways it’s served, “and to be more inspired and take all those ideas home so we can share them.” As more people heard about the trip, the group grew. “I had no idea anyone else would be interested due to the depth of information we wanted,” but her initial party of five turned into a crowd of 22.

When the time arrived, a group of small farmers, researchers, chefs, and a few enthusiasts from Oregon and Washington State piled in vans and made their way around Italy to taste and ask questions and take notes. After the trip, the notes were compiled and organized. Josh Volk, a small farmer, farm consultant, and author of “Compact Farms,” put all the notes into a document full of helpful information, in English, to share with fellow and future radicchio growers back home.

Sourcing reliable seeds is high on the priority list for a radicchio grower. One of the main companies they’re available from is widely known for having wildly inconsistent seeds. The group visited the relatively new Levantia Seed, where they were given a presentation and served lunch featuring radicchio in every dish, including a radicchio-almond cake, before heading to the company’s trial fields.

In the trial field, and any time they were among rows of radicchio, the entire group was mesmerized and inquisitive; kneeling down to closely examine every type they were shown, scribbling notes, taking tons of pictures. After getting a close look and taking photos of a particularly vibrant trial variety, Mary Colombo of Oregon’s Wild Roots Farm stood up with a smitten look on her face and said, “It’s hard not to fall in love with them. When you’re harvesting, you look around and everything is cold and gray, and then you have these, and it’s just so exciting. All these speckles and these colors. It’s like: ‘Nature, how did you do that?’” She’s been growing chicories for 10 years and they haven’t lost a bit of their charm.

The farms visited were of different sizes, and with very different ways of operating. They got into the same technical conversations about things like spacing, fertility, seeding and planting and harvesting dates, and equipment, and every farmer gave very different answers. Any row of radicchio on any of the farms looked more or less the same, though — rows of dingy, unremarkable heads. “It’s gratifying to see that theirs looks like shit in the field, too,” Salvo said. All radicchio need their ugly outer leaves peeled back to reveal the treasures inside, and even the Italian masters don’t have a trick for avoiding that. When it came to forced varieties of radicchio, like Tardivo, everyone had their own distinct method, but each one worked and resulted in great product; this demystified forcing for some of the American farmers, who thought it was too fussy a crop to get into.

None of the growers on the expedition were new to radicchio. No matter how familiar, not a single one thinks they have the crops fully figured out. Salvo has been growing it for 15 years, and finds trips like this necessary and enlightening. Brian Shipman, the other half of Wild Roots Farm, said, “We’ve been growing radicchio for 10 years and still have plenty to learn.” There will be more large Radicchio Expeditions in the future, to keep gathering information to share and improve crops at home.

The push for radicchio is a humble and well-intentioned cause. It’s not about selling pretty vegetables, it’s about “trying to make a more sane, healthy food system through expanding the range of winter crops,” Volk explained, adding that it’s also about enjoyment. “Eating these foods is so much more interesting.” Boosting their popularity in the U.S. could do a lot of good.

“It’s a salad. It’s not going to change the world,” Salvo acknowledged, “but maybe there’s something about what it’s really representing, which is an economy that’s about community and caring for all of the people involved in the production of the things that you buy and use and eat instead of just thinking, ‘What does it cost and how does it impress your friends?’”

There is something special about this group and the reverence they have for a single crop. Their reasons for campaigning for it are important. Once you see it through their eyes, it’s impossible not to get on board. Woolhiser summed it up: “We all want the best for the world, and I’m pretty sure that means radicchio.”

Produce enthisiast

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