The Roots of the Radicchio Revolution in “the Veneto of North America”
How and why did we start our radicchio adventure? Sometimes it’s hard to know where a story begins. Each potential starting point has a precursor that seems equally important for understanding the whole. So perhaps, I’ll begin in the present and work backwards. My name is Jason Salvo, and I own Local Roots Farm, a 15-acre diversified vegetable farm located outside of Seattle. I am also one of the founders of Chicory Week — a ragtag group of people who, for a variety of reasons (more on this later), have undertaken a mission to get more people to eat radicchio and other chicories.
The other day, I got a phone call from an Italian-American gentleman looking for puntarelle. For what, you ask? In the pretty esoteric world of chicories, puntarelle is probably the most unusual and unknown. It’s a seasonal specialty eaten mainly in Lazio (the region around Rome) and Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot. What is it? Puntarelle is a chicory that is grown for the asparagus-like shoots it forms on its way to making a flower. Of all the weird looking vegetables in the world, puntarelle may indeed be the weirdest. Google it. You won’t be disappointed.
The hollow stems, called cime or punte, are crunchy, bitter, green, and just a little sweet. Around Rome, it is typically eaten as a salad. Cooks shred the punte by forcing them through a wire mesh, then soak them in cold water, which makes them curl. The result is a curly, crunchy green that Romans toss with an anchovy heavy dressing. It’s delicious. The person who called me yesterday is from Puglia. There, he says, they parboil the shoots and blend them with fava beans making a dish similar to maccu, a traditional Sicilian soup.
This man has been searching for puntarelle in the United States for years. He reached out to a large California grower who, through the magic of social media, knew about Chicory Week. She passed our information on to him and the connection was made. This week, our Italian-American friend will buy some puntarelle from us. He and his family will get to cook their family recipe. At its core, that story is precisely what Chicory Week is all about.
My wife Siri and I became fascinated with radicchio after traveling and living in Italy in our early 20s. When we started farming, we grew lots of different varieties of radicchio, learning about its growth habits, the cultivation techniques that suited our region (which we affectionately refer to as “the Veneto of North America”), and how to develop a market for it. It quickly became our signature crop. We tried new varieties, dug deeper into the seed catalogues, and learned more about its history and lore. The more we learned, the more we loved it. The more we loved it, the more it loved us back.
What we found so inspiring about radicchio, beyond the fact that it’s delicious, is the fact that it’s so strongly associated with a particular part of the world. In America, we have lost many of the regional food traditions that Italy is known for. There’s something especially profound about a vegetable or a recipe or a tradition that has been passed down for generations, especially those that are connected to a particular place. In many ways, our love of radicchio comes from our increasing disconnect from our own cultural traditions. Radicchio represents a return to a way of life before big box stores, before convenience became the paragon, before homogenization started eroding the regional and cultural differences that make life interesting. But radicchio is only an avatar for the world we want to create. There was work to be done inspiring others to join us rebuilding a slower, collaborative, regional, culturally significant food system.
In 2014, inspired by farmers we saw on social media putting on festivals celebrating their favorite crops, Siri and I decided to host a Radicchio Festival on our farm. We invited our restaurant accounts out to the farm to tour our fields, followed by a raw bar style tasting of all the different varieties of chicories we grew. We hosted this modest event on our farm for a few years. Things got interesting when we started working with the inimitable Lane Selman.
Down in Portland, Oregon, Lane was putting on festivals celebrating vegetables, seeds, and plant breeding. She founded the Culinary Breeding Network as a way to connect plant breeders, chefs, and eaters, with the goal of helping promote vegetables that were bred for flavor, rather than being selected for corporate purposes such as shelf life, uniformity, or ship-ability. The events Lane put on were exceptional, the sort attendees left asking themselves how they could be lucky enough to have been there, filled with wonder and a sense of purpose. The Culinary Breeding Network was staging a food revolution, helping to take back control of a small part of our food system.
A few years after we started putting on our Radicchio Festivals, we asked Lane if she would help us. After all, we are farmers, not event coordinators. The idea percolated for a few years, and in January 2017, Lane approached us about collaborating on the event. At our first meeting was Jackie Cross, restaurateur of Tom Douglas Seattle Kitchen and farmer of Prosser Farm; Brian Campbell and Crystine Goldberg, farmers and owners of Uprising Seeds; Yasuaki Saito, restaurateur of London Plane; and Cassie Woolhiser, radicchio lover and all-around badass. Together, we reimagined our little Radicchio Festival and created the Sagra del Radicchio — a truly magical festival connecting chefs, farmers, and eaters and celebrating all things chicory.
A question we still ask ourselves is “Why?” Why would a group of people work so hard to promote a relatively unknown crop that most people find unpalatably bitter, with a limited market, and not much economic upside? Radicchio is unquestionably stunning, but we aren’t motivated by aesthetics, or by putting on a fun party — although those parts of this project certainly don’t hurt. We are a diverse group, so what drives each of us is not uniform, but collectively I think it’s safe to say that we believe that radicchio, as a crop, represents a return to local and regional food systems, a celebration of food and culture as an antidote to materialism, and a way for humans to connect with each other on a tremendously visceral level.
We still laugh about the first time we met Lane. We were all at a farming conference in 2012, but hadn’t yet been introduced. Lane had been working with some growers trialing different varieties of radicchio. Neither Lane nor the growers had a clear idea about what the varieties would look like when mature, or when they should harvest the heads. Lane had arranged a tasting of a few different varieties of radicchio, but all the heads were immature. The community wasn’t there yet. Lane was on the same radicchio journey as Siri and I, but a few years behind us. Now, only eight years later, there are dozens of small and medium sized farms all over the country growing many different varieties of radicchio and other chicories extremely well. Our Italian-American friend could have found puntarelle at a dozen farms in the Pacific Northwest alone, a crop even the most fanatical vegetable farmer would have never heard of five years ago. We’ve come a long way. Will you join us on our adventure?