A STORY I WROTE recently for my “New York Times” column took me on a fascinating, deep dive into the world of radicchio and put me back in touch with today’s guest, organic seed farmer Brian Campbell of Uprising Seeds.
Radicchio, with its long heritage in Northern Italy, isn’t the only crop with Italian roots that the Uprising team is crazy about, so today we’re going to meet leaf broccoli and cardoon, and some traditional Italian beans and beets, too, that would be just as at home in your vegetable garden.
Brian Campbell, with his partner Crystine Goldberg, owns Uprising Seeds just north of Bellingham, Washington, which was the state’s first certified organic seed company and features an assortment of exceptional vegetables and flowers. This year, they added the new Gusto Italiano Project to their lineup, a collection of radicchios and brassicas straight from Italy, and we talked about growing some of those selections and more.
Plus: Enter in the comments below to win one of the $25 gift certificates to Uprising Seeds that I’ll purchase for two lucky readers.
Read along as you listen to the June 21, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
radicchio, cardoon and more, with brian campbell
Margaret: Before we start, Brian, I just wanted to ask, how is it out there in your neck of the woods? I’ve been worrying especially about all my Western farming and gardening friends in this new normal of climate and weather, all this madness. How are you guys?
Brian: We’re faring pretty well. We’ve had a nice spring. We’ve got plenty of water up where we are, so we’re out of the drought-stricken regions a little further south, but so far so good.
Margaret: Glad to hear that.
So, whether farmers or gardeners, how we choose what we grow and get obsessed with [laughter]—there’s lots of different possibilities and lots of different influences out there to speak to us, and tempt us. And I love reading their variety descriptions on the Uprising Seeds’ website, because you often also speak in those descriptions to the traditions or the cultures of the seeds that you offer, where they come from, that spoke to you. So, like the new Gusto Italiano Project. Want to tell us what that is?
Brian: Yeah, sure. So one of the things that has always attracted us to seed work is these varieties with rich histories and with deep connections to tradition and place. And for us, one of the most important things in working with seeds is to use them as a way to be a conduit of connectivity between people and culture and place. And that’s what motivated us with this project, the Gusto Italiano.
We’ve always been attracted to the food and agriculture tradition of Italy, probably because that’s the first place we really experienced a rich, intact food culture as adults. These regional specialties that are really woven into the fabric of the culture of these places, and experiencing that and wanting to share that with people as a way to allow people to connect with traditions outside their own. Or to find people who are maybe from those regions now living abroad in the United States, and providing a way for them to connect to their cultural heritage has always been really satisfying to us.
Margaret: Right. So, this is a collaboration. The Gusto Italiano Project is a collaboration with Culinary Breeding Network and Smarties.Bio, an Italian-seed breeding company. It’s all organic seed. It’s very interesting, and what drew me to contact you to write about it was the radicchio [laughter], which I will confess I’ve never grown. But now, because it’s really likes to come to fruition in the fall and winter, it’s like a crop that we sow now and plant now and into maybe early August or something, depending on where we are in the north. So radicchio, yeah?
Brian: Yeah. We exist in a pocket of radicchio fanatics out here in the Pacific Northwest [laughter] that is trying to spread the gospel of this crop. We hope to build it as something that is a common crop to be found throughout, probably especially the northern United States where it’s best suited. But it’s such a lovely seasonal crop for the fall. And we love the flavor profile it brings and the seasonally appropriate flavors that it pairs with in the fall, so we’re really just trying to spread the word about it and build that tradition here like it is over in the north of Italy.
Margaret: What kind of blew me away, again, when I first contacted you, when I started doing the research for the story, the Times story, I didn’t even know… I have farmer friends and they might grow two kinds or three kinds or sometimes just one kind, but most people only know the one from the supermarket, if they know any. And as you told me, that’s the one that sometimes sort of shredded up into those bagged baby salad mixes. It’s dark purple-red in color and it kind of looks like a small head of cabbage. But that’s just one type, and it’s this chicory—it’s a cultivated kind of chicory, but it has all these diverse types. And that was what was so amazing. They’re so beautiful. I didn’t know most of them.
Brian: Yeah, they are so beautiful. And some of them, often they’re described in terms of flowers, like the Castelfranco types, they’re often called the tulip of winter. And there’s another type from Gorizia that’s called the rose of winter. So there are these beautiful forms, real diversity of shapes, a diversity to the extent that they are bitter, which is one of the factors that tends to turn people off, is not knowing how to manage that flavor that is sort of a new flavor for a lot of people in American cuisine culture. [Above, a Variegato di Castelfranco type called ‘Lentiggini’.]
But, rather than that being a deterrent, we just think of it as something, like anything, that you need to learn how to prepare, how to manage. And like you said, the one that most people are familiar with, the Chioggia types that look like the cabbages, that’s often a cooked type in Italy, and not one that’s eaten raw, where the bitter flavors might come more to the foreground. It’s something that will be maybe grilled or sauteed, where the sweetness might come out of it. Or sweeter elements might be added to tame the bitterness, to bring it more into balance. So, how people are exposed to it, I think, often shapes their impressions of it. And I think teaching people the culinary traditions and aspects, as well as exposing to them a diversity of shapes and flavors is also a real important component of it.
Margaret: For gardeners or farmers, but mostly listening to program are gardeners… As you taught me, it’s really important to choose the right ones to start with, because some of them can be 60 day-ish from the time of transplant to harvest, approximately, and some can be like double that. And those ones that are double that are a lot harder in a lot of growing zones. So, choosing the right ones to get started with, right?
Brian: Sure, and that’s not even necessarily just by type. So, if you took, again, that Chioggia type, there are Chioggia varieties that are very short days to maturity, so maybe 60 days to where you’ll harvest them or even less, and there are ones that are, like you said, 110 or 120 days to harvest. So, I wouldn’t say there are types necessarily that are better, but within that, you need to know what your season looks like. If you’re someplace like northern New England, where you have a very severe transition from fall to winter and it gets very cold very quickly, then you’re going to want to get that earlier-maturing varieties. Whereas if you’re in our area in the Pacific Northwest where we have these long, mild transitions to cold winter temperatures, we can grow the much longer-season ones.
Margaret: And so you recommend starting them in flats or cellpacks or whatever, starting them and transplanting them out maybe four weeks later? So I’d start soon and I’d transplant them out in July and so forth?
Brian: Exactly. And that’s probably the most important thing, and the thing that people most commonly get wrong, is that timing is much more important with radicchio than it is most other crops. And since it is a fall crop, you really have to… There is a time of year where you need to plant them. And that time is pretty much the end of June to maybe the first week of July for most of those varieties. So, you’re shooting to have transplants to put out into the garden by maybe the end of July.
And then they’ll do that growing through August and into September, and then the heading up really takes that shortening days of fall to really develop those nice tight heads for the heading varieties and to fill in. And again, like fall brassicas like kales and cabbages, the real cool nights and frosting at night is really an important aspect of developing the sweet flavors and really improves the quality of the final product.
Margaret: Well, in the longer Times story, we really just delved into radicchio. But there were some other things in the catalog, some are in this new assortment and some otherwise, or that I’ve seen on your Instagram. Like I’ve grown leaf broccoli—spigariello, I don’t know how you’re supposed to pronounce it, but you have a different one and it has a great story, too. And I don’t know if people have tried leaf broccoli, but it’s wonderful.
Brian: Yeah. So, we actually sell two. We do sell the spigariello, and then the one that’s part of the Gusto Italiano Project is a really localized regional specialty in the Veneto, in that same region that the radicchio comes from, and it’s called Fiolaro di Creazzo. And that is from a village there and has that similar, people who aren’t familiar with leaf broccoli, it doesn’t make a head of buds, which is what the broccoli head is, but rather it’s eaten more like kale or collards. It’s a brassica green.
And the Fiolaro is named as such because of what’s known as “fioi”, which are these branches, so it branches heavily and makes these stalks of clusters of leaves. And they have just a real delightful flavor, again, especially after frost, they sweeten up, and sauteed they’re very tender and delicious. And it’s a different brassica flavor profile than you’re used to from kales or collards or those things.
Margaret: Yes, it is. And it’s surprising because, again, the first time I grew it, I didn’t know what to expect the flavor would be, but it is distinctive. It’s a wonderful thing. And when would you… How late can we sow? Can we do another sowing of that for the fall into the cool months?
Brian: Yes, it’s less time-sensitive than the radicchio is, in that it is a brassica, so it will grow like kale. You can grow it any time of year, but in Italy it’s grown exclusively in the fall. And that’s how we grow it here, just because it is those cool nights of fall that really bring out the sweetness and really develop the flavor. We try to sow it in probably the beginning of July is fine, end of June is fine. We do transplants for that as well. You can direct-sow it if that suits how you grow things in your garden, but we’re shooting to start harvesting those once the nights start getting a little frosty.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Hard to imagine as we’ve just come into the hot months that we’ll ever go there, we’ll get there.
Brian: Yeah, it’s hard to think about this time of year when everyone’s still on asparagus and fava beans, but it is really the time that you need to start thinking about those fall crops, because it’s when you need to start sowing seeds for them.
Margaret: That one—isn’t that in the Slow Food Ark of Taste list? It’s a precious thing that isn’t widely grown and I think it could use more people growing it, is that correct?
Brian: It is, yeah. It is on the Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. It’s very localized. Our friend Andrea Ghedina of Smarties grew up very close to there, and had never even heard of it until a friend of his brought it to his attention. And it’s also something that is almost never…. It’s not a seed that you could buy in a seed catalog in Italy. A lot of these real regional specialties, they kind of exist outside of a commercial seed world and are just maintained by the growers that grow them.
So, it is a bit unusual for somebody like Andrea. And that is one of his projects, is collecting these really localized treasures that are likely threatened, just from an aging-out farming population and traditions changing there. One of his projects is to start collecting some of these really regional specialties, and working with them in a modern breeding context, and selling seeds to try and promote people to keep growing them.
Margaret: Yeah. Keep them alive. And so Smarties again, that I mentioned at the beginning, is one of the partners in this Gusto Italiano Project, and he’s a Northern Italy-based seed breeder. And what’s so great is that with all the seed in this project, it’s organic seed.
And for those people who haven’t listened to me say this a million times before [laughter], it’s so important that we support organic seed. But also, like any living organism, seed over the generations is adapted to the conditions that it experiences. And so if you’re an organic gardener and you’re not going to feed this stuff fertilizer and spray it when a pest shows up, organic seed is going to be your best seed, I think, to grow, right? It’s appropriate for an organic garden.
So it’s great that you have this available. I don’t see as much organic radicchio, for instance, as you guys have. You have, I think, 15 kinds or something now?
Brian: Yeah, it’s very, very unusual. He’s really the first person that we’ve seen in Italy working on this scale in organic systems. We hope to see more of that to come, and hopefully this is just the tip of it, but it does feel like an unusual thing at this point. And it’s really exciting. We’re thrilled about it.
Margaret: So he’s based in Chioggia, yes?
Margaret: And that is the name of that red-cabbage-lookalike radicchio, right? That type?
Margaret: And then you have a beet with the same name, ‘Chioggia,’ and that was one of the first things I ever got from you years ago, I think, because I loved that beet. It’s that beet that people may recognize that has the rings of white and red inside when you cut it open. But it was sort of inconsistent, unreliable where I had gotten it before, was never quite the same. And I saw that you were working on it, and that was one of the first things I ever talked to you about, years ago. So, tell us about that beet.
Brian: Yeah. I remember that. We did a whole talk about beets. A lot of these older varieties that are open-pollinated, they really require a lot of work to keep… They tend to drift if you’re not being really active and intentional in your seed selecting and your seed work. And that was one that we had seen drift, like you said, to be pretty irregular and not very uniform. [How to grow beets, with Brian Campbell.]
So that was one of our very early projects to try and tighten the genetics up on that so it was a more uniform crop that was better for both commercial farmers and gardeners. And yeah, that comes from the same region. We don’t hear a lot about that one in Italy, other than it being named for that town, but I think it originally does come from that place. And it’s also known as the candy-cane beet for people who might not have the association with the name with the red and white stripes.
Margaret: Yeah. So the other day, or I don’t know, last week, whenever it was, on Instagram—and I love your Instagram feed, I don’t know who writes it, which one of you writes it, but it’s great and it’s funny, too, a lot of times. It has a lot of attitude, which I love [laughter]. So you showed a plate of what looked like little cutlets, breaded and fried, and it was cardoon [above].
Margaret: And I was like, “What? Who’s growing cardoon and eating it? This is fabulous.” So tell us about cardoon.
Brian: Yeah, I have my soap boxes, and that’s one of them [laughter]. I feel like one of my goals in life is to popularize cardoons in North America. And I feel like it’s one of my favorite foods of fall. For people who love artichokes, it’s very closely related, probably a slightly wilder version. It doesn’t make those big buds, which are the artichokes on the artichoke plant. But instead it’s grown for the stems.
And it’s a bit of a process to produce in that it requires one final step before you can harvest it, which is wrapping the bases of the stems, probably the bottom 2 or 2-1/2 feet, to exclude light, which is called blanching. And that needs to be done to tame the bitterness, which if it’s not done, it tends to be pretty unpleasantly bitter.
But what you get after that time, after you blanch it, maybe for about a month before harvesting, you get this huge—I describe it as celery on steroids. So, it’s a pretty big reward for the work that you can get a couple-pound clump of stems, and it has the flavor of artichoke hearts.
And if it’s done well, it has a really smooth texture when it’s cooked, and the way we like to prepare them is kind of a Roman style. Lots of different parts of Italy have different versions, which is you boil it and poach it in white wine and water, and then cook it until it’s soft, and then bread it and fry it. And it’s just this delicious, creamy, crunchy artichoke-flavored dish that we just love. It’s probably one of my favorite things to eat in the fall.
Margaret: It’s interesting. It’s also a beautiful plant, I think. I haven’t seen the one-
Brian: Yeah, they’re exquisitely beautiful.
Margaret: Yeah. It’s kind of silvery.
Brian: They’re huge and they grow to 3, 4 feet. For people who have grown artichokes, they look very similar, if not a little bit bigger. And some people grow them just as ornamentals. They do flower similarly to artichokes. They’re a little smaller and rounder, the buds, but this beautiful big, purple, showy flowers that pollinators love and florists love, actually.
Margaret: Yeah, it’s a great one.
Brian: It is.
Margaret: In the last several minutes: I didn’t know that I was one of these until I read it on your description of your bean sampler. It says that in Italy, Tuscans are sometimes referred to as “mangiafagioli,” the bean eaters. And I eat beans every day, as I have for about 100 years, so apparently I’m a mangiafagioli [laughter]. [Above, painting of ‘The Bean Eater’ by Annibale Carracci, c. 1583]
Brian: Sure, yeah. The term might be a little derogatory, I’m not sure.
Margaret: Oh, well!
Brian: But there is a long history in Tuscany of cultivating and eating beans as a staple part of the cuisine. And like you, we eat a lot of beans in our diet. We have been a vegetarian family for just about forever, so legumes feature pretty prominently. And again, we just fell in love with the regional diversity on display when we visited. And from what we’ve learned, there’s a lot of varieties that are on the Italian Ark of Taste that are very localized in production and treasured both locally and throughout Italy and beyond.
And so we have made it one of the points of our work with seeds of collecting a lot of these varieties and growing them and offering them. So, we do offer a collection of four packets of different varieties that are specific to different parts of Tuscany, and really enjoy growing and sharing and eating them.
Margaret: Well, and one of the four is called ‘Purgatorio,’ purgatory [laughter]. So who could resist trying to grow the ‘Purgatorio’ bean?
Brian: Yeah, sure.
Margaret: Right. Yeah, it’s great. Well, like we said at the beginning, so many stories and so much culture and history comes with these varieties that you’re attracted to, which is so great. So Brian, I just always enjoy speaking and I’m so glad to learn more about some of these, especially the cardoon, which again, as you said, it’s beautiful. So even if we fail at the excluding-the-light thing and don’t get the 2 pounds of deliciousness, you can still enjoy the beauty, right [laughter]?
Brian: For sure. And in a lot of parts of the country, they perennialize, too, so it’s something that you can plant once and enjoy for many seasons.
Margaret: Oh, amazing. Well, I’m glad to speak to you. I’m going to actually buy a couple of gift certificates as a giveaway with the transcript of the show, because I’m so excited about some of the things you’re doing. So, hopefully some listeners will be excited, too. Thank you again for making time. I know this is a busy time of year, so thanks, and it’s good to speak to you.
Brian: Yeah, you too, Margaret. Thanks, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you.
enter to win a $25 uprising seeds gift card
I’LL BUY TWO gift cards for $25 each from Uprising Seeds for two lucky readers. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box farther down the page:
Any edibles of Italian heritage in your garden? Ever grown radicchio or any of the ones we talked about? Do tell.
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick the random winners after entries close at midnight Monday, July 28, 2021. Good luck to all.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 21, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).