What will you do on the longest day, which this year falls on Saturday 20th June? Perhaps you’ll take in a performance of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, maybe you’ll be up early to see the sun rise and sleeping late to make the best of every extra minute of daylight. Or possibly, like me most years, you’ll forget it’s the mid-point of the year until it’s almost sun rise on the next to longest day. Whatever you do, it’s worth making time for a lesser known ritual: to sow a few seeds of an under-appreciated vegetable, the deliciously bitter radicchio.
Much prized in Italy, radicchio in the UK is often limited to a few red and white leaves mixed into a salad, which is a real pity. There’s a dizzying variety to choose from: bull’s blood red leaves with white veins, pale green with wine freckles or creamy-white with red speckles, and growing in every shape from frilly bowl and compact ball to giant dandelion style sprouts with toothy edges. Salads need never be boring again.
Nor is there any need to restrict radicchio to the salad bowl. Its bitter taste transforms into caramelised sweetness when cooked and it’s great combined with sharp cheeses or nuts, in risottos or even barbequed.
Adaptive growing tips – Radicchios are shallow rooted so lend themselves to raised bed growing. Sow direct in shallow drills and thin later or sow into cardboard or newspaper pots and plant out directly without the need for fiddly transplanting. The plants are so decorative they also look good in a pot, worked into borders or in a potager among flowers. These are undemanding, low maintenance plants, ideal if you have limited time and energy. Let a few run to seed for tall flowers of the most beautiful periwinkle blue. Though do try to catch the seed heads in paper bags for saving and sowing next Midsummer’s Day. If you let them seed randomly into the garden, the seedlings will be up too early in Spring and growing from cold into heat which can make them unpalatably bitter.
Choose your seed with care: though bred for cold tolerance in northern Italy, not all will be truly hardy in our frosty climate. Some varieties are bred to form a head (these work well in cooked dishes) whereas others are best for picking leaf by leaf, ideal for salads. Then there’s the huge variety of colours and leaf patterns to choose from too.
There is one important knack to growing radicchio successfully in the British climate: sow in heat and grow into cold. As in comedy, the timing is crucial. If you sow early in the year along with other salad crops in March and April, the radicchio seedlings will be growing from cold into warmer weather so missing out on the cold exposure needed for the mature plants to develop their beautiful red colours and build sugar reserves. By sowing from Midsummer onwards, you take advantage of warm days for germination and then the shortening day length and cooling temperatures work their magic, transforming green plants that look like a standard Romaine lettuce into something much more interesting.
There’s still time to find some radicchio seed – I’ve seen them in our newly re-opened garden centres - and you can sow through until August or September, later if you can grow them on in your greenhouse or polytunnel over winter.
Recipes featuring radicchio feature in every good Italian cookbook. In Milan they cook the red Treviso forms slowly in risotto with red wine and parmesan. In the Veneto you can find it quartered and fried in breadcrumbs, but my favourite way to savour radicchio is in a salad recipe from Verona that combines sweet pear, sharp Gorgonzola and roast walnuts or chestnuts to complement the bittersweet flavours of the crunchy purple-red leaves of local Veronese or Treviso radicchio.