The Radicchio Chronicles

The Patient Plotter owns a large and quiet walled kitchen garden in the Shires, which he plots, plans, digs, manures, sows, plants and harvests all by hand, all alone, all year round. It was not always thus. After a long and, dare we say it, illustrious career in the City, he decided that life was too short to waste impatiently and loudly pursuing Mammon, deals and chattels. He settled instead for the country life, joined Slow Food, bought a pressure cooker, a herb chopper, Victorian rhubarb forcers, old garden tools and several iron water butts. Out of nothing grander than ploughed glebe land filled with the detritus of many decades of the previous owners’ neglect and wastefulness, he took several decades to create a beautiful, unique and lovingly nurtured plot. Now patient and quiet, he enjoys solitude, birdsong, composting, harvest festival and Gardeners’ Question Time.

Across the seasons he will share with us his enthusiasm and love for the delicious fruits of all his hard labour, which, he says, hurts his middle aged back and lifts his youthful soul, in equal measure.

The Radicchio Chronicles by The Patient Plotter in the quiet garden

Every year I set myself new challenges, and this year I am embarking on something completely new and different. I am cultivating radicchio. I tasted this beautiful red and white mottled, striped vegetable for the first time when I toured the Veneto region of Northern Italy, many years ago, when I was married. I loved it so much I ordered it practically every day, in the bustling trattorie and osterie of Venice, Padova, Treviso and Asolo.

I ate spherical radicchio heads in Chioggia, the small town on the Venetian lagoon, served in a wavy, creamy risotto which was sprinkled generously with the most delicious, three year old Parmiggiano Reggiano flakes and butter so pale and delicate in the mantecatura it looked like cream. I ate Trevisano ciccheti, the long, curly, arching endive style radicchio leaves, finely sliced and served with boiled eggs, salted anchovies and lemon juice, in a salad so delicious I ordered seconds at a bacaro on Murano. At a small trattoria in Padova I ordered Castelfranco radicchio, its thin, rose white leaves roasted very lightly and served with paper thin egg tagliolini and butter. I wrapped radicchio heads in brown parchment paper and smuggled them in my hand luggage, wedging my leather case under the seat in front of me so that Italian-style exhuberant take-off and landing would not shake their tender heads. I fear I have become quite radicchio obsessed.

My ex-wife, on the other hand, loathed radicchio and all that surrounded it. She said the flies in the Venetian markets were insufferable, the humidity unbearable and the crowds too suffocating and uneducated. She thought Asolo too quiet, Treviso too provincial, Padova was a backwater and the whole of the Veneto in no way as cosmopolitan, attractive and exciting as Roma, Firenze or Milano. She thought that radicchio was the work of the devil, so bitter, its taste clinging obstinately to the back of the palate and throat, masking all prandial pleasures if ordered as an antipasto. She would make choking noises while chewing it, as if she were being poisoned. Enough said.

The interesting thing about radicchio growing in Italy is that it is protected by E.U law, and, in fact, it is only allowed to be cultivated in and around the 55 towns north and west of Venice. Pliny the Elder ( 23-79 AD) ate it in abundance. The chicory family, of which radicchio is a member, under the genus Cichorium, just like lettuce and the dandelion, was not introduced into Great Britain until the 13th Century,  its widespread consumption only coming into effect in the 1950’s when hydroponic cultivation became the norm, alas.

In the Autumn of last year, I uprooted the chicory plants that were growing in my walled kitchen garden, and I sliced off all their heads with a Sabatier knife on my wooden board in the conservatory. It felt brutal, cruel and unusual, but I was following a well-known text on the subject. I then re-planted them in big wooden compost trays, and left them outside, under glass frames, to feel the cold but not the frosts. Apparently this method, along with regular, controlled watering, ensures they do not taste quite so bitter.  At the beginning of February I placed the wooden trays in rows in my cellars. There are aisles of stone wine bins up and down the sides of the vaulted, red brick rooms, and there, nestling amidst the wines, prosciutto, cheese safes and homemade sloe gin, my radicchio heads will stay, ensconced and cossetted, their cardinal red flamed stripes forced in the sepulchral darkness and carried triumphantly out into the spring light. I will harvest them later on in the spring, and I am plotting many a great supper, sitting alone, in my kitchen, with my loyal dog, Colonel Rufus, the fire roaring, the Claret aired and the candles lit.

My aged housekeeper, the inscrutable but very reliable, Mrs.Cripp, looks at them in horrified consternation, mumbling that they will only add to the powdery moulds that she cleans annually with Eau de Jeyes Fluid, its fragrance lingering on her persona as she hoovers her way arthritically, through my bachelor residence. She grumbles how much simpler it is to do one’s shopping at the local town’s Londis store, where they have “lovely salad boxes, all washed and ready”. Women and radicchio: methinks they do not get on.

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